Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 185

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 185


This is the grave of Philip Barbour.

Born in 1783 in Gordonsville, Virginia to an elite but downwardly mobile family close to James Madison, Barbour briefly studied law with the Virginia legend St. George Tucker, but lacking the money to continue, he moved to Kentucky and began a legal practice there. After starting a practice there, he decided to move back to Virginia and attended William & Mary College and then practiced law in his native state.

Barbour joined the Virginia House of Delegates in 1812 and then won a special election to go to Congress in 1814 when the previous representative died. He would serve in the House until 1825, becoming Speaker from 1821-23. He was an Jeffersonian states rights advocate of early America school, being less concerned about issues such as slavery and effectively serving as a modern representative of the old Federalist-Jeffersonian debates. Thus he strongly opposed internal improvements coming from Washington as an unconstitutional violation of states rights. He claimed the tariff was unconstitutional, not just that it was too high or didn’t protect southern interests. He tangled with John Marshall over several constitutional issues around federal vs. state sovereignty, most famously in Cohens v. Virginia, where Barbour believed the government did not have jurisdiction over a case where two men from Baltimore were convicted of selling lottery tickets in Virginia. Marshall, naturally, believed otherwise.

After a term off, Barbour returned to Congress in 1827. He joined Andrew Jackson in opposition to the Bank of the United States, helping to solidify alliances between the old Jeffersonians and new Democrats. As questions around slavery began to play a larger role in national politics, he took a common stand upon Jacksonians–generally supporting its expansion into the territories while trying to not talk about it in domestic politics. While chairing Virginia’s constitutional convention in 1829-30, he ensured that slavery was just not part of the conversation while doing everything in his power to ensure that plantation owners also dominated state politics. The outcome created a lot of anger in the western counties and helped fuel the discontent that led to West Virginia splitting from the rest of the state during the Civil War.

Andrew Jackson wanted to reward Barbour for his support and even offered him the job of Attorney General. He declined until Jackson named him a district court judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, which he accepted in 1830. He was floated as a VP candidate in 1832 by people who disliked Martin Van Buren, but refused to advance this. But his known support for Jackson was very important is merging the Old Republicans with the New Democracy and creating a stable Democratic Party. Finally, Jackson named Barbour to the Supreme Court in 1835 to replace the retired Gabriel Duvall. He was so hated by the Whigs that he had a bit of a confirmation battle and was only approved in 1836. He would remain on the Supreme Court until 1841, where he would push his states’ rights doctrine and seek to limit federal power, being a solid ally of the new Chief Justice, Roger Taney. Barbour died in his sleep in 1841.

Philip Barbour is buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

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