Below is from the William and Mary Quarterly, Reviews of Books

Review of: The Making and Unmaking of a Revolutionary Family: The Tuckers of Virginia, 1752

The Making and Unmaking of a Revolutionary Family:
The Tuckers of
Virginia, 1752-1830

by Phillip Hamilton
296 pages, 6 x 9
13 b&w illustrations
Paper ISBN 978-0-8139-2744-2 • $19.50
February 2008

The Making and Unmaking of a Revolutionary Family is an interesting
and carefully crafted study of the family dynamics of the Tuckers in the
Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary generations. Phillip Hamilton’s questions
about how families respond and shape new strategies for maintaining their
economic power and social position are vitally important in any consideration of
post-Revolutionary Virginia.”
—Herbert E. Sloan, Barnard College, author of
Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt

In mid-April 1814, the Virginia congressman John Randolph of Roanoke had
reason to brood over his family’s decline since the American Revolution. The
once-sumptuous world of the Virginia gentry was vanishing, its kinship ties
crumbling along with its mansions, crushed by democratic leveling at home and a
strong federal government in Washington, D.C. Looking back in an effort to grasp
the changes around him, Randolph fixated on his stepfather and onetime guardian,
St. George Tucker.

The son of a wealthy Bermuda merchant, Tucker had studied law at the College
of William and Mary, married well, and smuggled weapons and fought in the
Virginia militia during the Revolution. Quickly grasping the significant
changes—political democratization, market change, and westward expansion—that
the War for Independence had brought, changes that undermined the power of the
gentry, Tucker took the atypical step of selling his plantations and urging his
children to pursue careers in learned professions such as law. Tucker’s stepson
John Randolph bitterly disagreed, precipitating a painful break between the two
men that illuminates the transformations that swept Virginia in the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Drawing upon an extraordinary archive of private letters, journals, and other
manuscript materials, Phillip Hamilton illustrates how two generations of a
colorful and influential family adapted to social upheaval. He finds that the
Tuckers eventually rejected wider family connections and turned instead to
nuclear kin. They also abandoned the liberal principles and enlightened
rationalism of the Revolution for a romanticism girded by deep social
conservatism. The Making and Unmaking of a Revolutionary Family reveals
the complex process by which the world of Washington and Jefferson evolved into
the antebellum society of Edmund Ruffin and Thomas Dew.

Phillip Hamilton is Associate Professor of History at
Christopher Newport University.


Volume LXI, Number 3

William and Mary Quarterly Reviews of Books

Review of: The Making and Unmaking of a Revolutionary Family: The Tuckers of Virginia, 1752




AMILTON. Jeffersonian America Series. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.

Pp. xiv, 250. $35.00.)

Reviewed by Laura Croghan Kamoie,

American University

By the 1780s, Virginia’s planter class had suffered economic decline and even outright

economic disaster. By the 1790s, planters’ position, status, and authority were declining. By 1800,

only a few estates in either the tidewater or piedmont were prospering, and most estates were

wasteful, sloppy, and had low yields. By the 1810s, the kinship bonds that had once unified and

strengthened the planter class had largely collapsed. By 1820, the collapse of these kinship networks

contributed to making Virginia’s elite rigidly conservative, somewhat embittered, disillusioned with

the Revolutionary experiment, and nostalgic for the past. The War of 1812, in particular, had seemed

to build on changes in the post-Revolutionary period to create “within Virginians a particularly

nascent sectionalism based on a vision of a morally superior South struggling to preserve national

unity in the face of a grasping and selfish North” (p. 156).

Philip Hamilton illustrates this characterization of the fate of Virginia’s elite in the last half

of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth through an analysis of the Tucker

family. The fourth son of a prominent merchant, St. George Tucker arrived in Virginia from

Bermuda in 1771 to fulfill his father’s and his own economic and genteel aspirations. The Tuckers

had no connections in Virginia, but the young man quickly and pointedly made friends with the sons

of two prominent Virginians, John Page and Thomas Nelson. His father had groomed all of his sons

“to adopt polite and respectable personas when in public in order to gain the attention of their

society’s most influential citizens” (p. 21). He celebrated St. George’s new friendships, and “again

urged his son to cultivate his ties” (p. 28), especially with wealthy people like the Nelsons who could

serve as his patrons. By 1774, St. George completed his law studies, obtained his license, and had

accepted a legal job in the backcountry. The 1770s were a difficult decade because of the challenges

the Revolutionary War presented to the family’s merchant and shipping interests. In 1778, however,

St. George married wealthy widow Frances Bland Randolph, which linked him to two elite families

and allowed him “to fulfill his ‘Golden dreams of Virginia’” (p. 41).

Tucker’s dreams were quickly dashed because so much of his wife’s estate was encumbered

by her deceased husband’s extensive debts. The deaths of his father in 1787 and his wife in 1788

were blows that both saddened St. George and further weakened the family’s connections. The post-

Revolutionary economy presented challenges even for well-established Virginians. Post-

Revolutionary society was changing, too, as men from the more middling ranks demanded and often

obtained increased power and influence. In response, Tucker discarded “the economic practices and

customs of the late colonial era” (p. 3) that had traditionally brought elites their power and wealth.

He sold large tracts of land, moved to Williamsburg, advocated an emancipation plan, and

deemphasized familial ties. He urged his sons to follow suit. To some extent, his sons tried by

becoming lawyers and moving to the backcountry; however, their efforts ranged from minimal

success to outright failure, and they concluded that their father had led them astray. Becoming

nostalgic for the past, his sons, particularly his stepson John Randolph, came to believe that only the

“old traditions . . . of land and slaves” (p. 99) could guarantee their independence and their family’s

long-term success. Ultimately, Tucker became generally disconnected from his sons, both because

they lived far away and because, to an extent, they blamed him for their own difficulties.

Hamilton draws a number of important conclusions from the Tuckers’ experiences, most

importantly his characterization of the fate and decline of the planter class in the post-Revolutionary

era and the consequent emergence of a culture of nostalgia for the colonial past. But, in making

Volume LXI, Number 3

William and Mary Quarterly Reviews of Books

© 2004, by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

these claims, Hamilton makes little effort to assess the representativeness of the Tucker family

besides briefly mentioning that St. George Tucker was “just off the list” of the state’s one hundred

wealthiest citizens (p. 48) and occasionally offering comparisons to the Bland, Nelson, and Page

families. Although Tucker clearly built some wealth and influence in Virginia, Hamilton’s repeated

description of him and his family as “aspiring” shows that he was not among the elite. Moreover, he

does not seem to have been a typical Virginia planter. He was new to the colony when the

Revolution erupted, came from a commercial background, obtained his first landholdings after the

war began, began selling off his lands about a decade after receiving them through marriage, lived in

the backcountry, privileged legal work over planting from the beginning, advocated emancipation,

and suffered from a series of unlucky events—including family deaths, bad timing, and marrying a

wealthy widow whose wealth, unbeknownst to him, was much more limited than it appeared. It is

clear that Tucker believed that Virginia’s elite was declining, but Hamilton does not convincingly

show that the broader elite or planter class believed similarly or even that they were actually in

decline by economic or social measures.

Hamilton’s study of the Tucker family is much more successful when he creatively explores

the dynamics of various family relationships and analyzes the changing function and meaning of the

family over time. The Tuckers, both men and women, left a large body of papers, including letters,

poems, and other documents, that allows Hamilton to do this. The Tucker women consistently

emerge as three-dimensional characters who were integral to all facets of the family’s life. Hamilton

explores marital and parent-child relationships to show how outside pressures affected individuals,

immediate families, and broader kinship ties.

Finally, Hamilton wants “to explain the South’s evolution through the Jeffersonian period”

(p. 6), and in so doing he engages the questions of why and how the North and South had become

such different places by the 1820s and what those differences meant for the nation as a whole.

Although he does not directly discuss southern distinctiveness or the origins of the Civil War, his

work offers some useful insights into both of those debates. In particular, his provocative

conclusions about the consequences of the War of 1812 should foster debate and further

investigation. Overall, Hamilton’s work is a