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St. George Tucker

St. George Tucker
  • Born 1752 near Port Royal, Bermuda
  • Studied law under George Wythe
  • Married John Randolph's widow
  • Served at Battle of Yorktown
  • Taught law at College of William & Mary
  • Served as U.S. District Court Judge
  • Died 1827

Born and reared in Bermuda

Lawyer, trader, inventor, scholar, professor, judge, essayist, poet, gardener, stargazer – St. George Tucker was what the 18th century called "a man of parts."

St. George Tucker was born near Port Royal, Bermuda, in 1752, the son of Colonel Henry Tucker, a trader and owner of the Grove plantation. His christening name, St. George, had been in the family since about 1600, when Frances St. George married George Tucker of Kent, England.

Sailed for Virginia to study law

Reared in Bermuda, Tucker sailed for Virginia at age 19 to pursue an education in the law, a study he seems already to have begun. He enrolled at the College of William and Mary in 1772 and read under George Wythe, who had instructed Thomas Jefferson. Wythe examined and approved Tucker for the bar on April 4, 1774.

Virginia's courts closed as the Revolution began, and Tucker could not pursue his practice. He returned to Bermuda in June 1775, two months after the raid on Williamsburg's Magazine. Before he departed, he told Peyton Randolph and Jefferson of the existence of a similar magazine in Bermuda that might be a target for rebel retaliation.

Tucker's father obtained exemption from embargo against trade with British colonies

The Continental Congress had banned trade with colonies that remained loyal to Britain, and Tucker's father, the colonel, traveled to Philadelphia in July to argue for Bermuda's exemption. He received it by negotiating with Benjamin Franklin the capture of the powder his son had mentioned earlier. Two American vessels carried away 100 barrels from the Royal Powder Magazine in Bermuda the night of August 14, 1775. St. George Tucker hinted that he helped roll some of the barrels to the ships.

Williamsburg agent for father's trade business

Tucker returned to Virginia on January 3, 1777, landing at Yorktown aboard the Dispatch (a ship purchased for him and his associates by his father, the colonel) with a cargo of smuggled salt. Tucker became his father's Williamsburg agent and made himself financially comfortable in a deal that dispatched indigo valued at £10,000 in four ships from Charleston, South Carolina, to the West Indies to trade for arms.

Married John Randolph's widow

He also fell in love with a woman he met at Bruton Parish Church. The object of his heart was Frances "Fanny" Bland Randolph, 25, the widow of John Randolph and the mother of three. They married on September 23, 1778, and moved to the Randolph plantation Matoax near Petersburg.

When the British entered Hampton Roads in 1779, Tucker joined the militia as a major. He later fought at Guilford Courthouse, where he sustained a minor wound; chasing a runaway soldier, he ran into the man's bayonet.

Liaison with French at Yorktown

Fluent in French, he served as Governor Thomas Nelson's liaison with the French army at the Battle of Yorktown. His letters and diary from those days are rich in historical detail, and his description of General George Washington's arrival in Williamsburg before the battle is widely quoted.

Returned to practice and teaching of law

After the war, Tucker practiced law in the Petersburg area until 1788 when Fanny died shortly after bearing their sixth child. That year he accepted appointments as the professor of law and police at the College of William and Mary, and as judge of the Virginia General Court at Richmond.

He succeeded George Wythe at the school and, as was true of Wythe before him, Tucker's tenure was marred by disputes with the administration over instructional methods. Tucker favored lectures, and he preferred to teach in his home (the St. George Tucker House on Market Square), where his law library was handy. He usually had about a dozen pupils. One of them, William Taylor Barry, wrote: "He is a Man of genuine Cleverness and of the most exalted talents."

Married again after the death of first wife

Tucker married again in 1791, this time to Mrs. Lelia Skipwith Carter, 24, a widow with two children. She bore him three more, all of whom died early.

Urged the abolishment of slavery

In 1796, Tucker wrote and published the pamphlet "A Dissertation on Slavery: With A Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It in the State of Virginia." Cogently argued, it nevertheless had little effect. During these years he also edited Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England" to put them in an American context and make them more useful to students. It was published in Philadelphia in 1803 and earned Tucker the title the "American Blackstone."

Twentieth-century legal historian Lawrence Friedman said Tucker was "one of the most eminent of Virginia lawyers." But he was best remembered in Williamsburg for writing a spirited defense of the city and its inhabitants. It was a reply to a critical passage in a geography and tour book published by the straight laced Reverend Jedediah Morse.

Morse was a progenitor of Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraphic code – a subject that would have excited Tucker. In 1794, he was enthusiastic over the new French "Telegraphe," a semi mechanical semaphore signaling system. He had a colleague set up part of the apparatus at the Capitol to signal him at the college on the other end of Duke of Gloucester Street.

Constructed Williamsburg's first bathroom

Tucker is credited with the construction of Williamsburg's first bathroom; he converted his backyard dairy house and installed in it a copper bathtub into which heated water was piped. The tub had a drain. He also invented an "earth closet" for his home that removed "night soil" through the wall and designed a water pump driven by a steam engine.

An amateur astronomer, and an avid gardener, he was a charter member and officer of "a Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge" in Williamsburg.

Left college over dispute and became judge in Richmond

Continuing disputes over his teaching methods led to Tucker's departure from the college of William and Mary in 1804, when he was appointed to the Virginia Court of Appeals in Richmond. He had built a law office modeled after a Grecian temple there in 1803, but the change of locale and his appointment were delayed by scandal.

Gambler Robert Bailey of Staunton accused Tucker of soliciting a 100-guinea bribe for the acquittal of a current gaming charge. Tucker vigorously defended himself against the accusation, even traveling to Staunton to gather depositions about Bailey's character, thereby convincing the public of his innocence.

At the new capital he lodged in the Swan Tavern, a legendary inn. Though he wrote memorable poetry, he was also given to humorous doggerel, and he wrote these lines:

"There was a sorry judge who lived at the Swan by himself.
He got but little honor, and he got but little pelf [i.e. wealth],
He drudged and judged from morn to night, no ass drudged more than he,
And the more he drudged, and the more he judged, the sorrier judge was he."

In 1813, St. George Tucker became United States District Court judge at Richmond, serving until 1825. By then two of his sons were on the way to becoming prominent judges themselves.

Lived to the age of 75

Tucker died November 10, 1827, at the home of his stepdaughter Mary Cabell in Warminster. He was 75 years old.

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