- The Legacy of St. George Tucker: College Professors in Virginia Confront Slavery and the Rights of States, 1771-1897 by Chad Vanderford
Chad Vanderford has written an intellectual history of how white southern scholars viewed the Constitution, particularly regarding slavery and states' rights, in The Legacy of St. George Tucker: College Professors in Virginia Confront Slavery and the Rights of States, 1771-1897. Vanderford analyzes how professors in Virginia—in particular, three generations of the Tucker family—addressed those contentious topics. [End Page 404]
St. George Tucker, his son, Henry Tucker, and his grandson, John Randolph Tucker, are the central figures, although the writings of other contemporary intellectuals receive attention, too, such as Thomas Jefferson, Henry Ruffner, and George Frederick Holmes. Two chapters are devoted to each generation of Tuckers and their contemporaries: the first chapter examines their views on slavery; the second focuses on their opinions on states' rights. Throughout, Vanderford makes the tenuous claim that southern arguments for the necessity of slavery and the rights of states were based on intellectual issues related to natural right, not motivated by racism or the economic benefits of slavery.
Vanderford draws a distinction between modern natural right and classic natural right. Modern natural right is the idea expressed at the founding of the United States that the consent of the governed is necessary to legitimate government and that all men are equal. In contrast, classic natural right is the theory that the wise should rule; it is drawn from ancient philosophers like Aristotle, who believed that men were inherently unequal. Vanderford asserts that St. George Tucker, in his role as a professor and a writer, was a strong defender of the concept of modern natural right.
How did St. George Tucker's championing of modern natural right relate to slavery? According to Vanderford, while Tucker did argue that Virginians should free their slaves, he and his like-minded contemporaries justified slavery because they feared retribution from manumitted slaves. One of Vanderford's most problematic arguments is his assertion that Tucker, Jefferson, and others were not hypocritical for continuing to be slaveholders because they had a legitimate right to self-preservation that would be threatened if they were to free their slaves. He argues that historians have underestimated the inherent dangers of freedpeople to their former masters: "it may well be contemporary historians, not men like Jefferson and Tucker, who have failed to give the slaves of this period their due" (p. 22). Generally, Vanderford takes a dismissive tone toward modern historians and their "obsession with racism" (p. 12). Perhaps Tucker, Jefferson, and their intellectual heirs did try to justify slavery as a necessary evil by claiming the right of self-preservation, but Vanderford's presentation of this view as legitimate is puzzling. Vanderford also discusses how St. George Tucker's legacy was betrayed when southern intellectuals began to argue that slavery was a positive good instead of just a necessary evil, which reflected a new reliance on classic natural right.
Vanderford is stronger in his chapters on the Tuckers' views on states' rights. St. George Tucker argued that individual states had rights analogous to the rights of individuals. Because under modern natural right individuals can leave the social compact, the states also had the right to secede from the United States under the Constitution. In contrast, Vanderford argues that those who opposed secession had reverted to classic natural right in insisting that the states remain subservient to a "wise" federal government. Vanderford's sympathies lie with the Tuckers; regarding the present he argues "the rights of states should [End Page 405] continue to exist as a means to defend the rights of political minorities" (p. 137).
In brief, Vanderford's arguments are thought provoking but not entirely convincing. This book would make for some spirited conversation in a graduate seminar.