Confederate History Month 2012: Nathaniel Beverley Tucker on Race and Secession

Nathaniel Beverly Tucker: Architect of Confederate Nationalism


Nathaniel Beverley Tucker of Virginia, the half brother of John Randolph, is one of the most obscure, but ultimately one of the most important cultural figures in the creation of the Confederacy.

In many ways, Tucker was the architect of Confederate nationalism. He sowed the seeds of the revolution, plowed the cultural ground, built the ideological “cornerstone,” and was engaged in preparing the Southern mind for secession decades before his vision of the “Southern Confederacy” was finally realized:

“Tucker and all fire eaters found one of their most important sources of unity in rejecting Thomas Jefferson’s ideals of natural equality and making republican theory conform to the realities of a slave society. American republicans had long maintained that true freedom, for individuals as well as societies, required economic independence. And yet fire eaters as well as Jefferson feared that even in America a poor, landless class might jeopardize both independence and social unity. By enslaving the poor, especially when that class was clearly separated by race, Tucker and other fire eaters merely embraced a logical conclusion that Jefferson avoided: African slavery was necessary for American republicanism.

In common with other advocates of slavery and secession, Tucker claimed that a fundamental inequality existed between blacks and whites and, most important, that blacks lacked the capacity for self government. Moreover, Tucker denied that blacks had the same “passions and wants and feelings and tempers” as whites. He said God had invested Anglo-Saxons with “moral and political truth” and created them as “a master race of unquestionable superiority.” Africans, however, barely bore “the lineaments of humanity, in intellect scarcely superior to the brutes.” Therefore, Tucker justified slavery on the grounds that it forced to labor those “who are unable to live honestly without labor.”

Tucker was the earliest champion of an independent Southern Confederacy. He also envisioned a Confederate Republic purged of the corrupting influence of liberal democracy expanding into the Caribbean.

“By 1833, at the latest, Tucker longed for the creation of a southern nation. In letters to his intimate friends he gave form and substance to his dream. . . . He foresaw expansion of slavery to Cuba, Jamaica, and far into South America if only slaveholders would free themselves from northern domination.”

In his own time, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker would have been labeled a “rightwing domestic extremist.” He had traveled further ahead of the historical curve than anyone in the South. It was a lonely perch on the fringes of society.

“Tucker grew somber when he perceived a lack of public support for his vision of southern glory. He knew the painful reality of a maxim he offered his students: “He, who in political life would act alone, must always act without effect.” Tucker often felt the isolation of his small Williamsburg classroom, and his lack of oratorical skills prevented him from spreading his ideas to more than a handful of people at a time.” He knew others looked upon isolated thinkers like him as “‘abstractionists’ – politicians of the absurd school of poor old Virginia, who, it seems, is one of these days, to die of abstraction.” But after more thoughtful reflection, Tucker consoled himself with the thought that the classroom and his essays provided an adequate forum “to accustom the public mind to think of that which must come” and all him to “act through others.”

Tucker was a discourse poisoner.

“While he urged Hammond to lead South Carolina out of the Union in 1836 over the issue of northern abolition agitation, Tucker took quill to hand and wrote “the best exposition of the advantages of dissolution that I could give, presented in popular form. His efforts resulted in The Partisan Leader, a novel that Simms described as a curious anticipatory history.” Published late in 1836, it bore the pseudonym Edward William Sydney and the false date of 1856. Designed to show the ghastly results of continued consolidation of federal power, Tucker’s book described an effete and decadent Martin Van Buren serving in his fourth term as president, helping his party entrench itself in power and effectively destroying constitutional restraints. In a curious parallel to the actual secession crisis of 1860-61, Tucker’s novel had states of the Lower South seceding first and being joined later by other slave states. The Partisan Leader showed Virginia racked with internal divisions, some supporting secession and some backing Van Buren’s attempt to keep the Commonwealth in the Union by force. Those already acquainted with Tucker’s politics found many familiar ideas. One character explained that he fought to keep Yankees from making blacks and whites do “what we are not fit for.” Another agreed, adding, “the Yankees want to set the negroes free, and make me a slave.” Virginians finally resisted after decades of submitting to federal usurpation of power, as though the spirit of John Randolph had risen from the sleep of death.” During the course of the war, free trade policies helped the southern nation grow more prosperous; at the same time, the loss of tariff revenue from the south crippled the northern financial structure.”

Oddly enough, the “Southern Confederacy” began its existence in a futuristic novel written by a marginalized rightwing domestic extremist in 1836. Twenty five years later, the spirit of John Randolph “rose from the sleep of death” and incinerated the Union.

Note: The real Southern conservative tradition stretches all the way back through the Confederacy, through Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, and through John Randolph and the Tertium Quids to the Anti-Federalists.

About Hunter Wallace 12380 Articles
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  1. “By enslaving the poor, especially when that class was clearly separated by race, Tucker and other fire eaters merely embraced a logical conclusion that Jefferson avoided: African slavery was necessary for American republicanism.”


    Not only is this something I have also come to in my reading of history- and therefore, one must hold to the inevitable necessity to separate from non-Adamics, or to hold them in perpetuity as nothing more than chattel….

    But to read it from a man who was there when the Constitution was illegally imposed, who knew about the Articles of Confederation, and who yet realized that either: a) Jefferson did not MEAN to include non-Whites in the phrase, “All men are created equal” (which, after visiting Monticello, and noting that our Third President continued to be a slave-holder during his live, gives credence to this position)-

    Or: b) Jefferson and all those who agreed with him was/were LIARS.

    Either way, this nation as it is currently constructed, needs to be abolished.
    Secession. Now. Today. Forever.

  2. This whole misunderstanding Jefferson thing is driving me crazy. Did not a single person in the Confederacy read Locke?

    “All men are created equal” is a strictly political proposition, and from that strict and limited standpoint, it is true. The proposition has nothing to do with the countless other aspects of human existence. Why do people insist on reading it as a universal assumption? It isn’t one, and the guys who wrote it and signed off on it wouldn’t have said so.

    That phrase is treated like a poetic profundity, but it isn’t one: it’s a practical matter that means certain things and therefore not other things.

    That an entire culture could have misread such a crucial bit of text drives me nuts. It’s like saying “to be or not to be” is really all about land-owning issues in Guatemala.

  3. Equality at that time meant, equality among peers. It certainly cannot have meant equality across races. It also meant that the law wasn’t going to pick on individuals and persecute them beyond all reason.

  4. I don’t think they misunderstood Jefferson.

    They were responding to the destructive logic of his “all men are created equal” statement. Even if Jefferson had clearly not meant that human beings are interchangeable units, he opened up Pandora’s Box and by the 1850s it was apparent how radically that statement could be taken out of context.

    There are no limits to Lockean liberalism. Once the snowball of “freedom”and “equality” got rolling, it was taken to ever greater extremes. It became corrosive of all customs and traditions.

    After witnessing the extremes to which liberal democracy could be taken, some Southerners began to conclude it was best to extirpate the whole liberal tradition, root and branch.

  5. The same set of issues:

    1.) Liberalism run amok.

    2.) Demographic time bomb.

    3.) Political doom within the Union.

    4.) Egalitarian fanaticism.

    5.) How do you radicalize conservatives?

    6.) How do you break into the mainstream?

    7.) How do you construct a nation?

    Just as before, the “pinch” of the Union is forcing us to reassess our loyalties, and construct some kind of alternative to it.

  6. “There are no limits to Lockean liberalism”

    But it ISN’T liberalism! It’s the most basic, elementary ABCs of social contract theory. Heck, even an arch-conservative like Confucius would have agreed with it.

    The major thrust of Jefferson’s argument is not the “equal” phrase, it is “to secure these rights”. THAT is the crux of the matter, not the puffy poetry part.

    Here is the argument:
    1. Men are men. They exist.
    2. Men, by virtue of existing, have rights. (Some are enumerated)
    3. (This is unspoken but understood, which is probably the critical flaw in the Declaration’s rhetoric): even though men have rights, they do not always enjoy them, because power and desire are corruptive forces, so that men with more power are often able to deny other men their rights.
    4. Therefore, men must consciously take care to secure their rights, or else they will not enjoy them.
    5. In order to secure their rights, men make social compacts, otherwise known as societies or governments, as they see fit.

    That’s the logic, whether you agree with it or not. Within the correct context, “All men are created equal” simply means “after all we have to start somewhere.”

  7. The fact is, Jefferson put that radical statement out there in the Declaration of Independence, and once it was out there it became subject to interpretation and a matter of contention.

    That statement has been invoked by every radical leftist from Lincoln to MLK to justify the destruction of all tradition and the levelling of all social classes. I’m glad the Confederacy was wise enough to repudiate it.

  8. “1. Men are men. They exist.
    2. Men, by virtue of existing, have rights. (Some are enumerated)”

    Oscar, since my quoting Jefferson seems to have precipitated your tirade, let me then clarify my p.o.v., from looking at your points above.

    1) If this is the case (and looking at things from a Biblical/Covenantal/Scriptural perspective – since I am a clergyman, and must do this) then ergo, Negroes are not Men, but ‘behemah’ as the Talmud claims all non-Hebrews are.

    Which necessarily invalidates point 2) above.

    Which brings us back to the views iterated by Tucker, above. Negroes have no ‘rights’ as the equal to the white Man, and Jefferson’s statement needs to be re-cast in the proper philosophical, cultural, racial, and religious light- that only Adamic (i.e., White) men are ‘MEN’ and only THOSE men have ‘rights.’

    The others (Negroes, etc.) don’t count… or at best only count as 3/5ths of a White Man- a point I’ve made on this forum, tongue in cheek, more than once!

  9. “That statement has been invoked by every radical leftist…”

    Well, yeah. My point is that they all misused it (probably deliberately so, mostly). My little comment won’t undo any of the damage, but truth is truth, if this simple point were to be talked about more plainly and more often, who knows what good might come of it.

    Robert Frost once called that troublesome little phrase “Jefferson’s great mystery.” What sticks in my craw is that it isn’t a mystery, and it isn’t great, and any high-school kid should be able to see why. We simply have the misfortune that a rather mundane bit of reasoning happened to be very memorably phrased. (And it was by Franklin’s edit, too; Jefferson’s original wording is clumsier and less sonorous, which would have been preferable as things turned out.)

    Fr John says I had a “tirade”. I think I actually simply wrote a minor comment on a blog, stating a rather shop-worn political-philosophy argument that was already ancient when I was a toddler.

    Draw whatever conclusions you wish about his choice of words. I’ve drawn mine.

  10. No one who is familiar with Jefferson believes that he believed in literal biological equality. He was a pioneer of “scientific racism.” Of course that has never stopped the Left from distorting his words.

  11. #13 — well we can agree on that!

    “No one who is familiar with Jefferson…”

    See that’s one of those look-at-the-finger-instead-of-the-moon problems. It happens all the time, people fixate on the individual Jefferson, or Confucius, or Aquinas or Jesus or Mohammed or whoever, instead of the substance of what they were putting across.

    Either an argument is true, or valid, or at least plausible, or else it isn’t. Madison and friends (and we really should be more concerned with the serious philosophy of The Federalist, not with the cosmetic, for-the-cameras ranting of the Declaration) were the most successful political philosophers of the last thousand years, and yet we’ve put aside most of what they really said and thought because it goes against the gargantuan Frankenstein we’ve turned our government into.

    One thinks of Wotan and his problem.

  12. Jefferson Davis argued in his farewell speech that Thomas Jefferson was denying the divine right of kings and an aristocracy of blood inheritance conferred by birth with the phrase “All men are created equal.” Equality of all men of the political community is the idea according to him.

    Thomas Jefferson as has been pointed out here numerous times before did not believe that blacks in terms of reason and other traits were the equal of whites.

    However there is a strain of thought in his writing that the ultra-slavery men would revolt against which is that slavery even of the blacks is an evil to both black and white because it violates natural law, liberty is the gift of God to all men which includes blacks according to Jefferson.

    In Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia after laying out his case that blacks are inferior to whites in many ways then goes on to condemn slavery as such,

    “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. … For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him. With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”

    In his writings Jefferson is a gradual emancipationist. Slavery is wrong but must be maintained until the blacks can be removed because the self-preservation of our civilization requires it.

    It also must be pointed out though for all Jefferson’s theoretical conviction that slavery was an evil it never moved him to free and colonize his own slaves out of America.

  13. #15 — an interesting and informative comment, thanks for posting it.

    Re your first para, Jefferson was indeed denying divine kingship and blood aristocracy, and he was right to do so; but OTOH he was making a bit of a theatrical strawman argument (as was Tom Paine) because by the late 18th century the British Empire was really ruled by Parliament, not by kings. The anti-king business was rather useful in getting the people all het up, because it made for a good rant (“molten Majesty” is one of the better bits of American political rhetoric); but the true Lockean argument is more subtle and more realistic.

    The Founders were exasperated that their rights as free Englishmen were being trampled: it didn’t really matter whether it was by a king or by Parliament. A blood nobility had been useful for a time in an ancient country like Britain, but in a new country like America it was a ridiculous imposition, and everybody could see that.

    The problem with blacks and slavery is not directly related to the Lockean line of thought, it was more a problem caused by limitations of geography and technology: the fact that “all men are created equal” does not demand that “all men must live together in the same country.”. Americans were never quite rational about the nuts and bolts business of ending slavery calmly, separating the races, and calling it a day.

    Had they done so, carefully and methodically and with a sense of finality, we wouldn’t have to put up with the nonsense we live with now.

  14. You rustic rabble threw in your lot against a king. Not a bad king either.
    The end of the Republic is clearly written into the beginning in this context. Hunter is quite correct in this trace of BRA right back into the DNA of the founding texts.

    Jefferson was a fucking poltroon. He certainly intended the nation he founded to work on behalf of rational aristocratic men, but the things he wrote were sufficient to hoodwink and bamboozle all sorts of riff raff into thinking they were invested in the struggle.

  15. “Jefferson was a fucking poltroon. He certainly intended the nation he founded…”

    Uh, Jefferson didn’t found the nation. That enterprise was a little large for one man to accomplish. He was a pretty smart guy, but he had a LOT of help. Jeffy is on the little-used two dollar bill. It’s the much more serious-minded Hamilton who’s on the ten. (Although why the really serious thinker, Madison, is nowhere to be seen on the currency has always been a mystery to me.)

    If I were you I’d be more careful about the word poltroon, you never know when it might end up in your own CV. For a bunch of rustic rabble, we certainly turned you Masters of Reality into our own personal poodles, didn’t we. Rustic, is it? You have exactly one world-class city; we have five. And another five waiting in the wings just in case. We buy your national treasures, then park them in our deserts and forget where we left them.

    Now fetch, Brit-boy.

    (Actually no hard feelings, it was just a bit of fun to stretch those rhetorical muscles. Part of the fun of the blogosphere is a good rant, but it rarely holds up later, right?)

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