Southern History Series: Nathaniel Beverly Tucker and The Partisan Leader

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. As one of the members of the Sacred Circle, he sowed the seeds of the revolution of 1861, 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.

The following excerpts come from Eric H. Walther’s book The Fire-Eaters:

“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 a Golden Circle man who envisioned a Confederate Republic purged of the corrupting influence of Northern 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 in the 1830s.

“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.”

In 1836, Tucker wrote a fantasy novel called The Partisan Leader; A Tale of the Future that depicted the events of the rise of the Southern Confederacy:

“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 of Roanoke “rose from the sleep of death” and finally incinerated the Union.

Note: The 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. This is fun to explore and you’re not going to be taught any of this in the mainstream these days unless you go looking for it.

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