Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry


The Green Bag
VOL. IX, No. 12    
                               December, 1897

John Randolph Tucker
Susan P. Lee

JOHN RANDOLPH TUCKER, who died at his home in Lexington, Virginia, on the 13th of February, 1897, was a man of distinctive and marked personality worthy of special mention and honorable remembrance.

In his characteristics and his career, Mr. Tucker furnishes a fine illustration of the important influence of heredity. His grandfather, St. George, the first of the Virginia Tuckers, came to the colony from Bermuda, as a youth, in 1770. He received his education at William and Mary College, and became a lawyer in the Ancient Dominion. When the War of the Revolution opened, the young Bermudian not only took up arms in defense of the country of his adoption, but headed a secret expedition to his native island, which seized and brought off a quantity of military stores, which served to eke out Washington's scant supplies at the siege of Boston. As a colonel of cavalry, St. George Tucker also distinguished himself in Green's campaign, and was wounded at the siege of Yorktown.

American independence once established, Colonel Tucker resumed the practice of his profession. In 1786, he was a member of the Annapolis Convention, the precursor and originator of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The next year he was appointed a judge of the general court, and law professor at William and Mary College. He also performed excellent service as one of the revisers of the Virginia Code. These honors came to him before he was forty years old. Later on, Judge Tucker succeeded the eminent jurist, Edmund Pendleton, as president of the court of appeals.

Judge Tucker's legal decisions all tended to uphold and strengthen constitutional power as stronger and farther reaching than the laws of legislatures, or of Congress.

His annotations of Blackstone's Commentaries are noteworthy for their discussion of the principles of government, and especially of constitutional government. They offered the first disquisition upon the origin and nature of the Federal Constitution, and upon its character and interpretation.
Judge St. George Tucker's first wife was Mrs. Frances Bland Randolph, mother of the eccentric statesman, John Randolph of Roanoke. The first son of this marriage, Henry St. George Tucker, and a younger son, N. Beverley Tucker, were, like their father, educated at William and Mary College; and both of them became lawyers, and afterwards, like him also, judges and law professors.
Henry St. George Tucker, with his bodyservant Bob, left tide-water Virginia for the newer country beyond the mountains, and began the practice of law in Winchester, in 1802, when he had just come of age. His father promised to support him for three years, and during that time, the young lawyer called upon the parental purse for three hundred and seventy-five dollars. At the age of twenty-six he married Miss Anna Evelina Hunter, through whom their children inherited a strain of Scotch-Irish blood.

In the War of 1812 Henry St. George Tucker took up arms, as his father had done in the Revolution. After the peace, he was sent to Congress before he was thirty-five, where he showed himself an able debater, and help positions on several important committees. Mr. Tucker was then elected judge of the chancery court in his own and the adjoining districts, and, in 1830, was appointed by the legislature president of the court of appeals, although he was the youngest member of that August body. He filled this position for ten years, when he resigned it to accept the chair of law at the University of Virginia. He had, previously to leaving Winchester, conducted a private law school there, many students of which became leaders in their profession. While this school lasted, this second Judge Tucker wrote and printed for his class a series of "Notes on Blackstone," more at length than those of his father.

The third son of Henry St. George Tucker was born in Winchester, Virginia, in 1823, and was named for his distinguished half-uncle, John Randolph. He received his education at the University of Virginia, and studies law there under his father. He first settled in Richmond, but soon removed to Winchester, and became the partner of Robert Y. Conrad, an eminent lawyer of that day.
John Randolph Tucker was a diligent student, and a ready and skillful debater. With a clear insight into legal and political questions he combined a musical voice, a free flow of language, a graceful manner and ready wit, which made him on all occasions a pleasing and forcible speaker. In politics he was a State Rights Democrat, and took considerable part in public affairs. In 1852, and again in 1856, he was one of the Democratic electors from Virginia, and in a canvass against the "Know Nothings," in 1855, he gained a reputation as a popular speaker whom few in the land could equal.

In recognition of his ability, Mr. Tucker was appointed, in 1857, attorney general of Virginia, that office having become vacant by death. He was twice re-elected to this position, and continued to hold it during the four years of the Civil War. He then resumed the practice of his profession, and was associated with other distinguished lawyers in the defense of the Hon. Jefferson Davis. In 1870, Mr. Tucker was elected one of the law professors in Washington College, of which General Robert E. Lee had become president, and from that time was a leading and honored citizen of the little town of Lexington.

Four years after this, and for six successive terms, Mr. Tucker was elected to Congress by a very large majority, and it was only when he publicly declined renomination, in 1886, that his constituents consented to turn their thoughts to any other representative. His popularity during these twelve years was due to the confidence felt by the people in his honest fidelity to what he believed right; for on many public questions — tariff reform, sound money, and the Blair bill — he was opposed to the opinions generally held in Virginia.

From his first appearance in Congress, John Randolph Tucker was recognized as one of the foremost members of that body for ability, integrity, and accurate legal knowledge. He had honestly believed that, under the Constitution of 1788, a State had the right to secede. He now acknowledged that the arbitrament of the sword had destroyed any such right; but he stood manfully forward in defense of the South, and made forcible and brilliant replies to attacks upon here, especially those made by Blaine and Garfield.

Following the example of his father and grandfather, John Randolph Tucker devoted his attention especially to constitutional law, and had scarcely an equal in the house in that department of legal learning. His great speeches on the Electoral Commission bill; on the constitutional doctrine as to the presidential count; the Hawaiian treaty; the use of United States soldiers at the polls; the reduction of the tariff, and Chinese immigration, were all based upon the ground that the action proposed was contrary to the Constitution.

In 1880, Mr. Tucker introduced a rule for the counting of a quorum to prevent a deadlock in the house. Speaker Reed justified his action in 1890 by Mr. Tucker's argument of ten years before, and the last Democratic house practically engrafted his proposition in its rules. Mr. Tucker also did good work upon various important committees. As member for eight years — at one period chairman — of the Ways and Means Committee, he gave diligent study to the tariff question, which he embodied in his great argument upon the tariff in 1878. During his last two terms he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

After his retirement from Congress, John Randolph Tucker practiced his profession, and was engaged in very important cases. His splendid argument before the Supreme Court of the United States, in the debt case of Virginia, elicited high praise from the justices and lawyers who heard it, and won his case over the brilliant rhetoric of the opposing counsel, Roscoe Conkling. His distaste for the strife and wire-pulling of political life induced Mr. Tucker to withdraw from Congress.

In 1870, he gave up his large and lucrative practice to take once more the law professorship in Washington and Lee University, formerly Washington College. Teaching was as congenial to him as it had been to his father and grandfather, and he felt it a noble work for his advancing years to instruct his young countrymen in the principles of law government. He was untiring in study, and labored always to have such thorough knowledge of his subject as to present it in the clearest and most striking manner to his classes. In addition to his lectures, he devoted much time and effort to a work on constitutional law. This he left so nearly completed that his son, the Hon. H. St. G. Tucker, expects soon to put it in press.

John Randolph Tucker's legal reputation was national. He was in 1892 elected president of the National Bar Association, before which he delivered, on four occasions, splendid addresses. The three oldest colleges in the Union, — Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale, — each conferred upon him the degree of LL.D. Union University, in New York, added a fourth similar honor. Among many public addresses which he was called on to make, we must mention one before the Social Science Association in 1877; another, ten year later, before the Law School of Yale; and a third, delivered in Richmond, Virginia, two years ago, on the Old Court of Appeals of the State.

Mr. Tucker's individuality was even more brilliant and admirable in social and private life than in his public career. He had a fine physique, courteous, charming manners, a genial disposition, a marvelous gift as a raconteur, and a spontaneous, inexhaustible flow of wit and humor, which brightened the dark places of life, and brought smiles to the faces of all whom he met. He was the center of attraction at every social gathering, and young and old listened eagerly for the mingled fun and pathos which fell from his lips. He saw what was ludicrous even in his best and dearest, and with unusual mimetic power would reproduce it before them as with a flash of the kinetoscope, but it was always done lovingly, and without a trace of malice. To his friends he was always "Ran". His boys knew him affectionately as "old Ran." The humblest of the neighbors among whom he lived for twenty-six years honored and revered the stately, white-haired man who had a kind word and cheerful smile for each of them. Of late years it was his custom to stop and chat for a few moments with the friends he met in his daily walks, and many an anxious spirit felt lightened of its care after one of these kindly, witty talks.

At the age of twenty-five, John Randolph Tucker married Miss Laura Holmes Powell, who survives him after an unclouded union of forty-seven years. The assistants at their wedding were wont to declare that they were the handsomest couple who ever stood before a parson. As husband and father, Mr. Tucker was irreproachable. He took the keenest delight in the society of his family. His wit played more freely there than elsewhere. He was the most beloved and charming companion to his children and grandchildren, sympathizing alike in their joys and their sorrows.

Early in life Mr. Tucker connected himself with the Presbyterian Church, of which he was for many years an elder; and he led in his different vocations the life of a consistent Christian man. After returning to Washington and Lee, he added to his labors as law professor the teaching every Sunday morning of a large Bible class of young men. The words and doctrines of Holy Writ were as familiar to him as those of Blackstone and the Constitution, and he took even greater delight in setting them clearly and impressively before his youthful audience.

The grip attacked this noble, useful man, in December, 1896, and his beneficent life ebbed slowly away. His Christian faith was unwavering amid the sufferings and prostration which attended his last days. Flashes of his old humor sparkled from time to time. When told by one of his daughters that the consulting physician thought his constitution much in his favor, he whispered, with a twinkle in his eye, "I always was good on the Constitution."

Four daughters and one son, Hon. H. St. George Tucker, are still living. This son has filled his father's seat in Congress — except for one term — since 1886.

This brief sketch imperfectly describes a man who led so pure, useful and honorable a life as Mr. Tucker, and who will be so long and truly reverenced and mourned.