The Partisan Leader

by Dave Kopel

Having realized that the government in Washington, D.C., plans to destroy the constitutional republic, the American people rise up with their firearms to resist tyranny--this is the plot the number of books published in the past few decades, most notably Unintended Consequence by Albert Ross.  That book generated so much controversy that there have reportedly been several incidents of BATF agents "suggesting" that people selling the book and gun shows refrain from further sales.  But the controversy involving Unintended Consequences is relatively small compared to what happened after the publication of the very first "Americans against their government" novel--The Partisan Leader, first published in 1836.

Written under a pseudonym by Nathaniel Beverly Tucker--a former judge, and a law professor at William and Mary--The Partisan Leader is subtitled "A Tale of the Future" and set in 1849.  By then, most of the American South has long since seceded from the Union, and is enjoying the prosperity resulting from free trade.  Virginia, however, had chosen to stay in the union, but is now beginning to regret the choice.  President Martin Van Buren, first elected in 1836, is making himself dictator for life, destroying the sovereignty of the states; while maintaining the form of constitutional government, he is implementing direct military rule.

Like the novels of Sir Walter Scott, after which The Partisan Leader is consciously modeled, the book tells the tale of family divided by political conflict. There are beautiful women who epitomize Virginia graciousness, gallant and honorable men, treacherous Yankees, and one man who finds himself torn between his honor and his oath of allegiance to the United States Army.

At the request of his friends, Tucker rushed The Partisan Leader to publication in time to influence the 1836 election. Tucker, though, thought Van Buren was unstoppable, and Tucker was right. "The Little Magician," as Van Buren was known, defeated several Whig candidates, winning about 51% of the popular vote, and a much larger share of the Electoral College. Van Buren carried about half of the South, including Tucker's Virginia.

And it turns out that Tucker was drastically wrong in his assessment of Van Buren's character. In part because of outrageous charges made by his political opponents (such as Davy Crockett's claim that Van Buren wore ladies' underwear), Van Buren lost the election of 1840, and left office without incident.

Contrary to Tucker's prediction, President Van Buren was not anti-Southern. He fought for free trade, negotiating with other nations to eliminate tariffs on the import of American tobacco, a major crop of the South. He opposed the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, unless the slave states assented. And he was the first President ever to mention slavery in his inaugural address, urging that the institution be left alone.

And President Van Buren worked to shrink, rather than expand, the federal government. He continued his predecessor's successful battle against central banking. Despite a severe recession (the Panic of 1837), President Van Buren balanced every single budget; the national debt had recently been paid off, and he resisted all entreaties from the banking and allied interests that new debt be incurred. He also warned, correctly, that the creation of a permanent national debt would lead to oppressive taxation, and to "the prostitution of political power, conferred for the general benefit, to the aggrandizement of particular classes."

But The Partisan Leader  had far broader significance that a single election.  In The Partisan Leader, one finds a crystalline example of the mind-set which, twenty-four years after The Partisan Leader was first published, impelled the South to defend its honor by departing from the United States.

During the Civil War, The Partisan Leader was re-published, separately, in both the North and the South.  In the South, the book was a version of Why We Fight(a popular book published during World War II explaining the significance of the war against fascism). 

In the North, The Partisan Leader was re-published and advertised as "one of the most astounding revelations of political treason and conspiracy that the world ever witnessed", as the book which "foreshadows with uncanny accuracy every event now transpiring. A work which exposes most completely the machinations and diabolical plans of the political demagogues who for so many years have been plotting the overthrow of United States government."

The book is also an excellent distillation of Virginia ideology.  The Virginia characters in the book hardly do anything without considering how a potential act will reflect on their honor.

To modern sensibilities, Tucker's presentation of the Old Dominion's attitude towards the proper place of women is unsettling.  Decent women never express political opinions in mixed company. The only appropriate thing for a woman to do is to be "the wife of a Virginia gentlemen."  Only the  depraved women of the North write books or run boarding schools or get involved in political societies.

And the where The Partisan Leader goes most wrong is its analysis of slavery. Tucker repeats the platitude that Negroes are unsuited for freedom, just as whites are unsuited for slavery.  In Tucker's world, the slaves agree.  In one episode, a slave named Jack  and two dozen of his fellow slaves, armed with firearms donated by their master, drive off a bunch of Yankee soldiers who showed up to free to slaves and to impose military rule on the whites.

The Northerners are criticized for their inability to comprehend the "generous" spirit of the slaves. An early multi-culturalist, Jack's master reasons, "it may be that what is best for me is best for my friend Jack there, and vice versa; but his long as neither of us thinks so, why not leave each to his choice?"

Tucker's view about the supposed contentment of slaves with slavery was common in the South. A glowing review of the book in an 1837 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger particularly commended the slavery sections as educational reading for abolitionists about the futility of their enterprise. 

Yet the contrary evidence was clear enough: the slaves ran away whenever possible. Tucker should have known better, for own father--St. George Tucker--had been the leading abolitionist in Virginia, calling abolition his "dearest wish." 

When the Civil War did break out, the Confederates would have won easily if the states had the nerve to arm the slaves, and the slaves fought for Southern independence. But of course slaves with guns rarely remain slaves, and the vast majority of slaves who did fight fought against slavery, and for the North.

While wrong about slavery, Tucker was prescient in many respects--not only in predicting disunion, but in understanding the ideology of the type of men who would lead a war against the Union. As the Southern Literary Messenger observed in a 1862 review of the brand-new reprint of Tucker's book, "Of all the deeds done in this war, those which ring loudest and longest in our ears, and of which we are most proud, are the daring, dashing exploits of Ashby, Morgan, Stuart and Forrest--all ‘Partisan Leaders.'" Just as in The Partisan Leader, the hills of Southwestern Virginia were the scene of daring guerilla warfare against the federal army.

While slavery was an unworthy cause for partisans, there were other causes for which Tucker's characters fought: free trade (the Tariff of Abominations and the Nullification Crisis had taken place only a few years before), state sovereignty, and the original United States Constitution.

And Tucker reminds us of the genius of the authors of our Constitution. Their system of checks and balances was not limited to the division of power within the federal government. Again to quote the Southern Literary Messenger, "The check must be extraneous to the government itself." That is why there is a First Amendment, so that the power of speech can check the federal government; that is why there is a Fifth Amendment, so that the power of property and check the federal government. That is why there is Tenth Amendment, so that the power of state governments can check the central government. And that is why there is a Second Amendment, so that, if all else fails, the power of physical force can check the power of centralized tyranny.

Edgar Allen Poe praised another book that Tucker wrote in 1836--George Balcombe--as "the best American novel . . . its interest is intense from beginning to end . . . its most distinguishing features are invention, vigor, almost audacity, of thought."  These traits also grace The Partisan Leader, although it is somewhat weighed down by the stilted language of the Southern heroes, who, like Ayn Rand characters, launch into political expostulations at the drop of a hat.

Although The Partisan Leader is not currently in print, used copies of a 1933 reprint and a 1971 reprint (University of North Carolina Press) are available, and the book can of course be found at many high-quality libraries.

Thomas Jefferson, in a 1787 letter to Abigail Adams, wrote, "The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasion that I with it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all." Although Tucker's moral vision was severely impaired by his defense of slavery, the positive value of The Partisan Leader's best moral instruction is that resistance to a superior power may, however dangerous, sometimes be the only honorable choice.

And for today's readers, enthralled with books about a coming war against the modern federal government, the devastating results of the Civil War are a reminder that when one moves from novels about resistance to actual warfare, not even the best novelist will foresee all of the unintended consequences.

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