Getting it on with the common law

He was, the Colonial Williamsburg website says, “a man of parts.”

That’s a pretty good description of a man who was, in his lifetime, a “lawyer, trader, inventor, scholar, professor, judge, essayist, poet, gardener, (and) stargazer.”1

His name: St. George Tucker.

St George Tucker

And The Legal Genealogist thinks he was a pretty cool dude — and one every genealogist who ever needs to research in Virginia ought to get to know really well.

Now I’ll grant you that I’m a law geek — and so was St. George Tucker (1752-1827) — which means I’m already predisposed to like the guy. The mere fact that he studied law at the fledgling College of William and Mary and finished his legal training with George Wythe before being admitted to the bar in Virginia would make me like him. And his roles later as a professor of law at the College of William and Mary, and as a Virginia lawyer and state judge and, later, federal judge,2 just make me like him more.

But how can anybody not like a guy who — at least reputedly — helped the American rebels in the Revolutionary War scarf up critically needed gunpowder from the Royal Powder Magazine in his native Bermuda in 1775 or smuggled salt into Virginia in 1777? Or injured himself at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781 when he ran into a British soldier’s bayonet? Or served as liaison with French soldiers at Yorktown because he was fluent in French?3

C’mon… he was a pretty cool dude.

And he did something that really ought to make him a favorite with Virginia genealogists:

He compiled and edited a five-volume Virginia-specific treatise on the English common law,4 giving those of us who research in that jurisdiction a real leg up in understanding how the common law was integrated into American and specifically Virginian law before, during and after the Revolution.

What Tucker did was explain how we here on this side of the pond did or didn’t use the work of yet another law geek, William Blackstone (1723-1780). He was the youngest son of a prosperous middle class London family who basically didn’t make good as a young lawyer. He went into academia, and decided to give a series of lectures on the law. Those lectures became the cornerstone of what became known as Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, perhaps the most comprehensive review of the common law as it existed at the time.

Blackstone’s four volumes (Of the Right of Persons; Of the Right of Things; Of Private Wrongs; and Of Public Wrongs)5 have been described by the U.S. Supreme Court as critical in American legal history: “the Commentaries on the Laws of England not only provided a definitive summary of the common law but was also a primary legal authority for 18th and 19th century American lawyers.”6

But here’s the kicker: the common law wasn’t exactly common everywhere it was followed. It’s a dynamic legal system, one we follow here in America today, with judges playing an active role not just in determining what the law is but also in what the law should be. And even in early America, the common law here was sometimes more than a tad different from the common law of England.

St. George Tucker knew that. And so his classic five-volume work on the common law set out to clarify “where English and American law converged and diverged. Dubbed Tucker’s ‘American Blackstone,’ it was the first major treatise on American law and was frequently cited by the U.S. Supreme Court during the nineteenth century.”7

So for those of us who struggle with understanding how that English common law worked when it was brought into American — and particularly Virginian — law, we can read Tucker’s version — free, online, digitized.

Here from Google Books are links we can use:

• Volume I, Book First, Part First, Of the Rights of Persons

• Volume II, Book First, Part Second, Of the Rights of Persons

• Volume III, Book Second, Of the Rights of Things

• Volume IV, Book Third, Of Private Wrongs

• Volume V, Book Fourth, Of Public Wrongs

Yep, we can get all Tuckered out and get it on with the common law — American and Virginian style.

Thanks to St. George Tucker, indeed a man of parts.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “All Tuckered out with Virginia law,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 3 Apr 2019).

SOURCES

Image: Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin, engraving, St. George Tucker, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

  1. Meet the People : People of Williamsburg : St. George Tucker,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (https://www.history.org/ : accessed 2 Apr 2019).
  2. See Davison M. Douglas, “St. George Tucker (1752–1827),” Encyclopedia Virginia (https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/ : accessed 2 Apr 2019).
  3. Meet the People : People of Williamsburg : St. George Tucker,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
  4. St. George Tucker, editor and compiler, Blackstone’s Commentaries with Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws of the Federal Government of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 5 volumes (Philadelphia: Birch and Small, 1803).
  5. See Wikipedia (https://www.wikipedia.com), “William Blackstone,” rev. 20 Mar 2019.
  6. Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 712 (1997).
  7. Douglas, “St. George Tucker (1752–1827).”
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