St. George Tucker

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St. George Tucker (July 10, 1752 – November 10, 1827) grew up in one of Bermuda’s most prominent families, the Port Royal Tuckers. Colonel Tucker, St. George’s father, originally planned to send St. George to the Inner Temple in London to complete his education, but Colonel’s financial situation made that unlikely. After hearing that the College of William & Mary offered a cheap and good-quality education, Colonel sent St. George to Virginia, where he arrived in January 1772. Colonel soon learned that the College was more expensive than he’d been led to believe, and by 1773 St. George had left his general study course at the College to study under George Wythe.

After his studies with Wythe, St. George was offered the position of deputy clerk at the Gloucester County Court, but he declined the offer in favor of a better-paying clerkship with Dinwiddie County. The American Revolution temporarily derailed his plans, as all Virginia courts closed in the buildup. St. George started a business with his brother Thomas and their father trading goods between the West Indies and the American colonies while St. George unofficially represented Bermudan interests in Virginia. St. George met his first wife, Frances Bland Randolph, in 1777, and they married the following year. In 1779, St. George joined the Virginia state militia as a major, earning a promotion to lieutenant colonel after the Battle of Guildford Courthouse, in which he was wounded in the leg while trying to stop a fleeing American solider. Gen. Thomas Nelson eventually took St. George on as his translator to the French army.

After the war, St. George began practicing in Virginia’s county courts, and was eventually named a Commonwealth’s Attorney. In 1785 he began arguing cases before the Court of Admiralty, and in 1786 he was admitted to practice before the Virginia General Court, then the commonwealth’s highest legal tribunal. Virginia re-organized its court system in 1788, and St. George was named to serve as a judge in one of the newly-created District Courts, and he moved with his family to Williamsburg that same year.

St. George’s star rose quickly in the Virginia legal world. He argued as a friend of the court before the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in The Case of the Prisoners (Commonwealth v. Caton), one of the first cases in the United States discussing whether courts could exercise judicial review; Tucker’s teacher, George Wythe was among the justices on the Court that day. A pamphlet he wrote on commercial policy garnered enough attention that he was named one of Virginia’s delegates to the Annapolis Convention of 1786, an early attempt to remedy the Articles of Confederation’s defects.

St. George served on William & Mary’s board of visitors for several years; and made strong efforts to protect Thomas Jefferson’s revisions to the College’s curriculum from conservative clergy who served on the board. He was William & Mary’s rector when George Wythe resigned his post in 1789, and the board of visitors named St. George to succeed Wythe as Professor of Law and Police in 1790.

Although Jefferson was not fond of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, St. George used it as the foundation for his lectures, adding lectures on the United States Constitution, how American law diverged from the English common law described by Blackstone, on public morality, and on principles of American government. St. George would use the notes from these lectures as the basis for his edition of Blackstone's Commentaries, one of the most highly-regarded treatises in American legal history.

St. George taught classes during the months when District Court was not in session. He taught classes from his home, rather than at the College, so that he could have his entire library handy. During St. George’s early years at the College, students would alternate readings with lectures from dawn to dusk. After Tucker’s edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries was published, Tucker had his students read sections of it in class, then answer questions about what they had read. When Tucker taught law and police at William & Mary, law students there also needed to meet the requirements for the Bachelor of Arts degree. Tucker believed that William & Mary should produce top-notch students, so he created a proposal that increased the standards for granting a law degree from the College. Under Tucker’s proposal, law students would have to take at least two years’ worth of law lectures, undergo exams on several subjects, give an extemporaneous legal argument on a subject given them by a professor, pass an exam taken before the Virginia Court of Appeals, then present a thesis for publication. Tucker’s plan also proposed graduate degrees in legal studies.

Many students considered Tucker’s methods tough, but also noticed that they had a remarkable effect – one student, Joseph C. Cabell, said that “[y]ou may remember that a notion formerly prevailed here that a student of law should make the study of his profession subservient to that of politics. This opinion however seems not to prevail here this course, but has yielded to one perhaps more rational.” Tucker’s classes were in regular demand; students from other states, and even from England, came to Williamsburg to take his courses, and people reading law under attorneys would sometimes attend a term of Tucker’s courses at their supervising attorneys’ behest.

Under Tucker’s direction, the College also issued the first Bachelor of Laws granted to a student in the United States, to future Governor of Virginia William H. Cabell in 1793. While professor at William & Mary, Tucker also taught his son Beverley St. George Tucker, who would lead the school himself in 1834; and his son Henry St. George Tucker, who would found and run the Winchester Law School in Virginia, become a highly-regarded justice of the Virginia Court of Appeals, and later be named professor of law at the University of Virginia.

Tucker had ongoing conflicts with the College over the location of classes. In 1801, the board of visitors passed a resolution requiring that all classes be taught in college classrooms. After briefly moving his classes to the campus, Tucker returned them to his house. In 1803, the board of visitors passed another resolution specifically directing Tucker to teach his classes in college classrooms. The last straw for Tucker was two additional resolutions requiring professors to submit attendance records to the board and to visit each of their students’ rooms twice per week. Tucker said these new requirements “degrade the professor in the eyes of his pupils, and of the public, and of the man in his own eyes”. Tucker resigned, effective March 1804. Soon thereafter, Tucker was named to the Virginia Court of Appeals, where he served from 1804 to 1811, and later was a judge at the U.S. District Court for Virginia from 1813 to 1825. Tucker died in 1827.