Lord, master, and patriot: St. George Tucker and patriarchy in republican Virginia, 1772--1851

Date of Completion

January 1996


History, United States




By examining the life of Virginia jurist St. George Tucker (1752-1827) this work aims to illustrate the role of patriarchy in the early-national period. Historians have long recognized that patriarchy played a vital part in giving colonial society a measure of stability and cohesion. Tucker came of age in a patriarchal world marked by social hierarchy, in which an elite of landed "gentlemen" held sway politically, maintained social and economic dependents, and commanded deference. The Revolution challenged this long-established order by producing a set of values that threatened to undermine it permanently. St. George Tucker imbibed deeply of revolutionary "republicanism," meaning to him equality before the law, individual liberty, and government with the consent of the governed. I argue, however, that traditional patriarchal notions persisted in Tucker's interpretation of republicanism, underlying and informing it, and that much of his public and private life is best understood as a struggle to reconcile the two outlooks.^ I contend that Tucker's behavior as a judge, slaveholder, and head of household reflected his attempt to form a synthesis out of the conflicting demands of patriarchy and republicanism. Several scholars depict Tucker as a zealous revolutionary, straightforwardly engaged in remaking his world along republican lines. I find St. George Tucker more remarkable for his striking contradictions.^ Exploring these contradictions reveals several areas of interest to historians. Tucker shows that the "republican" style of childrearing, described by scholars as egalitarian and meant to turn out autonomous children, could also be used to enhance parents' traditional dominion over their offspring. Tucker's behavior from the bench signifies that Virginia's post-Revolutionary courts of law, frequently portrayed as agents for republican change, could also serve the agenda of traditional patriarchy. Tucker's treatment of slaves suggests that historians have not yet identified the full range of behaviors elite Virginia masters engaged in. Tucker and his sons' commitment to political deference and social hierarchy, and their influence in Virginia, testify to the lingering significance of patriarchy well into the nineteenth century, an era when most historians see it as no longer meaningful. ^