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  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly

James Barbour – Governor, Senator, Cabinet Secretary, and Diplomat

As we have seen in previous posts, in the early years of the United States men with leadership abilities tended to become prominent, thru military service and/or public service, often rising from local positions to state legislatures, then the US Congress and the on to higher office. Today’s subject is no different. As we will see, James Barbour achieved his fame in the early United states from following this very path.

Early Life

James Barbour was born in what became Barboursville in Orange County on June 10, 1775. Barbour was the son of Thomas Barbour (who held a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses before the American Revolution and was a justice of the peace for 57 consecutive years) and his wife, the former Mary Pendleton Thomas. His grandfather (also James Barbour, 1707–1775) had patented lands in Spotsylvania County in 1731 and 1733, and his uncle of the same name James Barbour also served in the Virginia House of Burgesses (1761–65, representing Spotsylvania County). Both sides of his family were among the First Families of Virginia and early settlers in Orange County and westward.

Presumably Where Waddell Held His Academy
Presumably Where Waddell Held His Academy

By the time James was born, the Barbour family owned over 2,000 acres and had several slaves. However, the family suffered financial reverses during the American Revolutionary War and its aftermath. Despite these family financial reverses that prevented Barbour from attending college, for his time he still enjoyed considerable privileges. After preparatory study in rhetoric and classical languages under the tutelage of James Waddel, a blind Presbyterian minister, who had an academy in Gordonsville, VA, Barbour read law in Richmond.

On October 20, 1795, Barbour married his cousin Lucy Maria Johnson who later became a prominent leader of Whig women. Lucy was the daughter of Benjamin Johnson, a prominent Orange county planter, who had represented Orange County in the General Assembly in 1790. They had four sons and three daughters during the ensuing quarter century. Of the three daughters, Frances, died as an infant in 1802: the second, Frances Cornelia, married William Collins of Baltimore. They also had four sons, including James Barbour and Benjamin Johnson Barbour (1821–1894), who later became the rector of the University of Virginia.

In 1794, he was admitted to the Virginia Bar. With wedding gifts from his father, as well as by building his legal practice and running his plantation, Barbour was able to build up personal wealth. His friend and neighbor at Monticello plantation, Thomas Jefferson, helped design the mansion in which Barbour lived most of his adult life, called Barboursville. By 1798, Barbour owned several slaves and would expand that plantation over the years, as would his somewhat neighbor on the other side, President James Madison at Montpelier plantation.

Career in Public Service

Barbour served as deputy sheriff of Orange County beginning in 1792. In 1796, Orange County voters elected Barbour to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1796, and he became that body's youngest member. Barbour was reelected several times to that part-time position, serving until 1804 and again from 1807 to 1812. Barbour became known for eloquence, and served on various committees, rising to chairman of several, including the Committee of Privileges and Elections and the Finance Committee. From December 1809 to January 1812, he served as Speaker of the House of Delegates.

John Adams - Driving Force Behind the Alien and Sedition Acts
John Adams - Driving Force Behind the Alien and Sedition Acts

Barbour held strong Republican beliefs, like his neighbors Jefferson and Madison. He vigorously opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and used his rhetorical eloquence to support the Virginia Resolutions against the Acts. Barbour believed the Acts and their supporters threatened the United States, stating:

"to make an expected attack from abroad a pretext for attacking the principles of liberty at home has drawn aside the curtain and clearly illuminated for all who are willing to see."

Barbour refused to support legislation increasing Executive powers, especially unchecked powers.

In the House of Delegates, Barbour took pride in writing the bill establishing the Literary Fund of Virginia, which passed on February 2, 1810. This bill provided some funding for public education in each county in the Commonwealth. Barbour later requested that the only inscription on his tombstone be a reference to this Act, affirming his firm belief that society would progress only through education. Conversely however, he also believed intellectual abilities related to gender, race, and land ownership.

The Richmond Theatre Fire
The Richmond Theatre Fire

Barbour ran for governor of Virginia in 1811 but on December 5 of that year the General Assembly narrowly elected acting governor George William Smith by a vote of 100 to 97. On the night of December 26, 1811, an event occurred which threw Virginia into mourning and disarray. The Richmond Theatre, in Richmond, caught fire and many of Virginia’s most influential people were lost. Among them were Gov. William Smith and his family. On January 3, the Legislature convened and elected Speaker of the House James Barbour governor.

At the time, British raiders were impressing American sailors (including Virginians, especially near Hampton Roads and Norfolk). Barbour favored war with Britain, which he viewed as the only way to end British interference with U.S. sovereignty. Barbour's father had trained the Orange militia, so the new Governor knew their inadequacies. On February 11, Governor Barbour sent a message to the Legislature seeking funding for Virginia's militia. On March 31st he wrote to the Commanders of the militia regiments, reminding them that it was the duty of Virginia to be in a state of defense. He then called upon them to use every means in their power to be prepared in case of war. Additionally, he personally toured the tidewater region most at risk. On the 5th of May, in response to an order by President Madison, Gov. Barbour issued an order, calling for four divisions of militia, each to consist of 1,000 men. In this way, he earned the title of “The War Governor” and by July 4th of 1812, the feeling in Virginia against England ran so high that the customary celebrations were much more enthusiastic than usual.

Perhaps because of his wartime preparations, Barbour faced no opposition and was reelected Governor in November 1812. However, by 1813, British ships had been raiding coastal Virginia. Some delegates opposed Barbour's support of President James Madison and national unity but nonetheless reelected him. In 1814, Barbour finally convinced the Legislature to approve raising 10,000 troops and placing that militia under Federal control. Washington D.C. was sacked before the Treaty of Ghent ended the war. Barbour also authorized exploration of the upper James River and received funding to improve Virginia roads. He was also the first Governor to inhabit the Virginia Governor's Mansion, designed by Alexander Parris. Virginians sent resolutions thanking the Governor for his strong and apt leadership during the war.

Service in the US Senate

As the War of 1812 wound down, James Barbour was elected by the legislature to succeed Richard Brent in the United States Senate on the first of December 1814. Barbour’s experiences as governor caused a major change in his political philosophy. The restrictive political dogma that he and other Republicans had fashioned when they were out of power during the 1790s no longer seemed adequate to him. The nation’s society and economy had become much more complex, and he came to value centralized banking and massed capital that could pay for roads and canals to facilitate the movement of people and goods and allow for the support of a strong military establishment to protect the nation from potential enemies.

John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun

As a result, although Barbour had previously opposed a national bank, President James Madison supported such, so Barbour became the Senate sponsor of a bill written by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander James Dallas, which authorized the National Bank with $50,000,000 in capital. It passed (although earlier similar legislation had failed). Senator Barbour aligned with Senators John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay on internal improvements (roads, canals, etc.) and slavery. Senator Barbour proposed a committee on roads and canals, supported the Bonus Bill (authorizing spending the bonus from the national bank on internal improvements), and proposed a constitutional amendment to grant Congress the authority to appropriate money for internal improvements. Senator Barbour also opposed reducing the national army, supported a bill abolishing imprisonment for debts, and introduced the Navigation Act of 1818 which closed U.S. ports to any ships from British ports closed to U.S. ships. Barbour hoped this would encourage the British to open their ports however, that effort failed. In 1823 a compromise led to the Elsewhere Act, which allowed for reciprocal trade.

Peers elected Barbour President pro tempore of the Senate in 1819. The 16th Congress, over which Barbour presided, adopted the Missouri Compromise on slavery. Barbour proposed combining the bill admitting Missouri (after he spoke in favor of allowing that state's voters to elect to support slavery) with the bill admitting Maine—to deny the Northern Senators an opportunity to gain four anti-slavery Senators. His speech, partially quoted below, may have foreshadowed the Southern position in the American Civil War after his death:

“Sir, no portion of the Union has been more loyal than the South. Is this your reward for our loyalty? Sir, there is a point where resistance becomes a virtue, and submission a crime. Our people are as brave as they are loyal. They can endure anything but insult. But the moment you pass that Rubicon, they will redeem their much abused character and throw back upon you your insolence and your aggression.”

In December 1825, Virginia legislators elected the Jacksonian Democrat John Randolph of Roanoke to succeed Senator Barbour. Like Barbour, Randolph would defend slavery, although a member of the American Colonization Society like Henry Clay. Unlike Barbour, he would, upon his death, emancipate the people he enslaved. Randolph opposed the national bank and the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that Barbour had helped Clay pass.

Henry Clay
Henry Clay

Secretary of War and Ambassador to Great Britain

Following John Quincy Adams' inauguration on March 4, 1825, fellow Senators confirmed Barbour as Secretary of War and Henry Clay as Secretary of State. Barbour succeeded John C. Calhoun in that office and for the most part continued Calhoun’s innovative policies. The War Department's primary functions were managing the army and overseeing Indian affairs. Barbour accelerated construction of the National Road as a defense measure and pushed other internal improvement projects.

As the government official responsible for Indian affairs, Barbour tried to protect the southern Indian tribes, especially the Creeks and Cherokees in Georgia, from encroaching settlers. Barbour soon came into conflict with Governor George Troup of Georgia, who wanted to evict Creek Indians from 5 million acres of land. Northern Creeks had supported Britain in the War of 1812, and Georgia planters had engaged in the Red Stick War to acquire Southern Creek lands. However, those Southern Creeks assimilated and supported the Americans during the war. Governor Troup's partially-Creek cousin William McIntosh had signed the Treaty of Indian Springs (1825), purporting to relinquish tribal lands in exchange for $200,000 for himself and installments totaling $200,000 for five other signatories. The U.S. Senate approved it by one vote on March 7, but tribal members protested vehemently, sentenced McIntosh to death, and killed him.

Georgia Governor Troup
Georgia Governor Troup

President Adams renegotiated the Treaty of Washington (1826) on slightly more favorable terms to the native peoples. Both treaties provided for removal west of the Mississippi (as President Jackson would later do the Cherokee Indians on the Trail of Tears). Governor Troup was upset that the second treaty allowed some Creek to remain in Georgia and began a survey to prepare to sell those remaining lands and threatened to call out the militia. At that point, the federal government ceased protecting the Indians. All Creeks' lands were seized, and all Creeks removed from Georgia by 1827.

In May 1828 Adams appointed Barbour minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain. On August 1 he sailed for England. European intellectuals accepted the new ambassador because during the 1820s, Barbour was a member of the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, as were other prominent military and medical professionals. On July 1, 1828, Barbour received an honorary LL.D. from the University of Oxford. Unfortunately, his career as a diplomat lasted only a year before Adams’s successor, Andrew Jackson, recalled him and replaced him in May 1829. Before he began his return voyage on October 1, 1829, Barbour visited the Marquis de Lafayette in France.

Barbour’s Final Years.

After President Adams' electoral defeat in 1828, Barbour returned to Barboursville to manage the 5,000 acres of land he owned there and his labor force of more than 100 slaves. A student and strong advocate for scientific farming, he conducted many experiments to restore soil fertility, prevent erosion, and increase crop yields. He publicized the results during his presidency of the Albemarle Agricultural Society and with articles in national farm journals and newspapers such as the Farmer’s Register and the American Farmer. Barbour advocated establishing a state board of agriculture to promote scientific farming and a professorship in agriculture and an agricultural experiment station at the University of Virginia. He raised imported Merino sheep and some of the finest thoroughbred horses in Virginia.

Ruins of James Barbour's Barboursville
Ruins of James Barbour's Barboursville

Although he had broken with many old Jeffersonians over issues of national politics, Barbour shared their devotion to agriculture as the foundation of a republican society and supported Jefferson’s proposed system of public education in Virginia. Barbour was the founder of the Orange Humane Society, established for the advancement of education among the poor.

In 1829 Barbour announced his candidacy for the General Assembly. However, Barbour's association with the unpopular Adams and his nationalistic policies made him unacceptable to many Virginia Republicans. Although his opponent was illiterate, the election was extremely close. And although Barbour was declared the winner, the election was contested. Before the legal decision, Barbour retired on February 16, 1831, citing the hostility in the Assembly against him.

Barbour continued to remain active in national politics. He served as chairman of the 1831 convention of the National Republican Party that nominated Henry Clay for president and helped organize the Whig Party in Virginia. Barbour also chaired the December 1839 Whig Party convention that nominated William Henry Harrison for president, and he worked for Harrison in the campaign. One observer declared:

"Gov. Barbour presented an imposing appearance, with a striking face, long, shaggy eyebrows, and head covered with silvery flowing locks; with a majestic and sonorous voice, he filled one's conception of a Roman Senator in the last days of the Republic."

Barbour’s health began to fail in 1839, and he spent his final days at Barbourville, where he died of prostate cancer on June 7, 1842. He was buried in the family cemetery on the estate. The grave and ruins of his mansion, Barboursville, remain within the modern Barboursville Vineyards.

We hope you enjoyed today's post outlining the life and accomplishments of another prominent Virginian of the early years of our Republic. Please join us again next time when we will examine how the foodways of the indigenous American Indians influenced those of the European colonists and citizens of the early United States.

Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


Long, W. S. (1914, June). James Barbour. The John P. Branch Historical Papers of Randolph-Macon College, IV(2), pp. 34-64.

Lowery, C. (1984). James Barbour, a Jeffersonian Republican. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Smith, M. V. (1893). Virginia, 1492-1892: a brief review of the discovery of the continent of North America, with a history of the executives of the colony and of the commonwealth of Virginia: in two parts. Washington: W. H. Loudermilk & Co.


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