Lesser-known histories still affect student experience

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August 19, 2010

1:33 AM

History, more than anything else, sets the College of William and Mary apart from other institutions of higher learning. It factored heavily into my decision to attend here. But after a few years, it’s easy to lose that feeling of past and present. Maybe it’s the fault of the newest buildings — the Integrated Science Center, the Jamestown dorms, Alan B. Miller Hall — with their pristine modernity, or the concrete blocks we call the Botetourt Complex. Or the Units which, although they are certainly not new or modern, are still too young — and unsightly — to stir up thoughts of a historic past. Most likely, once life at the College becomes routine, we are blinded to the past by our classes, homework and numerous activities.

If we take a moment to consider our surroundings, however, we can reconnect to the mystique that is part of the College’s draw. For example, just a few steps from the Christopher Wren building, the commanding austerity of which is one of the College’s most powerful links to the past, sits St. George Tucker Hall. While the name of Tucker is not as well know as those of Jefferson, Washington, Marshall or Tyler, an investigation of the man behind the name reveals a story of war, love and politics in which the College features prominently.

St. George Tucker, an 18th-century Renaissance man, was born in colonial Bermuda in 1752. He traveled to Virginia at the age of 19 and, one year later, began studying law at the College under the tutelage of another legend, George Wythe. In 1774, Tucker completed his studies and passed the bar exam.
Tucker could not immediately pursue a legal career, as the brewing colonial revolution forced Virginia’s courts to close. A native of the Caribbean, rather than the continent, Tucker was not initially interested in rebellion. Tucker and his father — a trader and businessman — may have harbored revolutionary sympathies, but it was business that brought the family into the war. Tucker’s father negotiated with Benjamin Franklin to lift the embargo of Bermuda which was just one of many loyalist colonies embargoed by the Continental Congress. In return, the Tuckers helped the revolutionaries raid the British powder magazine on the island.

In 1777, with the Revolutonary War in full swing, Tucker returned to Williamsburg as an agent for his family’s trading business. He grew rich from financing the trade of American indigo for West Indian arms needed by the colonial army. It was not until the British entered the Hampton Roads, Virginia area in 1779, that Tucker joined the rebellion in earnest. He entered the militia as a major and was involved in the battles at Guilford Courthouse and Yorktown.

After the war, Tucker practiced law in Petersburg, Virginia for several years, but after the death of his wife Fanny — the widow of another alumnus, Sir John Randolph — he returned to Williamsburg and to the College as a professor of law. He began teaching in 1788 and is said to have enjoyed lecturing small classes in his home. Although his students seemed fond of him, he was consistently in conflict with the College’s administration on account of his teaching methods. Ultimately, these disputes lead to his less-than-congenial 1804 exodus.

Nonetheless, the legacy of his life and work is still present at the College, in Williamsburg, and in the legal profession. Tucker’s most famous works are his Blackstone Commentaries, which adapted English law to American society, and his multiple works concerning slavery and the Second Amendment. Aside from these well-known works, Tucker wrote countless other legal essays, many of which are stored in Earl Gregg Swem Library’s Special Collections. There, they have recently received some attention from Charles Hobson, a resident scholar at the College’s Marshall-Wythe School of Law. Hobson is currently working on creating an annotated compilation of the works.

Tucker’s legacy also lives on in Colonial Williamsburg. His house, located north of Market Square, is one of the most intricate and beautiful historical buildings in the town. On a side note, he is also credited with the creation of Williamsburg’s first bathroom.

These are just some things to think about next time you cross the Sunken Garden and — after it’s much-needed renovation is complete — rush into class in Tucker Hall.

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