Barbour, Philip Pendleton

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Philip Pendleton Barbour, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was a strong advocate of states' rights and the strict construction of the Constitution.

"What is settled by the Constitution cannot be altered by law."
—Philip Pendleton Barbour

The son of a wealthy planter from one of Virginia's oldest families, Barbour was born May 25, 1783, in Orange County, Virginia. He was educated locally and excelled in languages and classical literature. At seventeen, he became an apprentice to an Orange County lawyer. After less than a year clerking and studying law, Barbour left Virginia for Kentucky, where he practiced law for a short time. In 1801, he returned to Virginia to attend the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, where he briefly studied law. A year later, he established a law practice in Orange County, and quickly gained a reputation for his outstanding oratorical abilities in the courtroom. In 1804, he married Frances Johnson, the daughter of a local planter, with whom he had seven children.

Barbour's family was both socially prominent and politically active. His father, Thomas Barbour, was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses for many years, and his older brother became a Virginia governor, U.S. senator, and secretary of war under President john quincy adams, whose administration Barbour would eventually oppose. Encouraged by his father's and brother's successes, in 1812 Barbour ran for and won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. Two years later, he won a seat in the U.S. Congress and aligned himself with a group of older Republicans who favored strict construction of the Constitution and a limited federal government. Barbour served as Speaker of the House from 1821 until 1823, when he was defeated by henry clay. In 1824, Barbour chose not to run for reelection to Congress, and returned to Virginia to resume his law practice.

During his career as a practicing attorney, Barbour was involved in a number of important cases. He argued the state's position before the U.S. Supreme Court in Cohen v. Virginia, 19 U.S. 264, 6 Wheat. 264, 5 L. Ed. 257 (1821), a landmark suit that helped to clarify the role of the federal courts in reviewing state court decisions. In Cohen the Court held that the federal judiciary could review cases arising in the state courts that involved constitutional issues. Though Barbour lost the case, his vigorous representation helped to further establish his reputation as a strong defender of the states against what he often saw as the growing encroachment of the federal government.

In 1825, after considering and then declining an offer from thomas jefferson to join the law faculty at the University of Virginia, Barbour was appointed to the General Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, a state trial court, where he served for almost two years. In 1827, at the urging of his constituents, Barbour ran unopposed for Congress, though he lost the Speaker's race to fellow Virginian Andrew Stevenson. During his second stint in Congress, Barbour was a vocal opponent of President Adams, even though Barbour's brother James Barbour was a member of the Adams cabinet. Barbour objected to the administration's spending policies and to the imposition of a tariff in 1828. He also continued his relentless advocacy of states' rights and the narrow construction of the Constitution, introducing an unsuccessful bill in 1829 requiring that five of the seven justices on the U.S. Supreme Court concur in any decision involving a constitutional question.

In the late 1820s, Barbour became a strong supporter of andrew jackson, who defeated

the incumbent Adams in 1828. Barbour was considered for a position in the Jackson cabinet but was not appointed. In 1829, Barbour was chosen president of the Virginia Constitutional Convention, replacing the ailing james monroe. During the sometimes tumultuous convention, Barbour argued for apportionment of representation based on both white population and property ownership, and argued that the latter should be a qualification for the right to vote. Barbour also sided with the conservative slaveholders in the eastern part of the state against citizens in the western part of the state who, opposed to slavery, eventually formed a separate state, West Virginia.

Barbour's unwavering support of Jackson and his policies earned him an appointment as a federal judge for eastern Virginia in 1830. In 1832, he was briefly a candidate for vice president against martin van buren, even though Van Buren was Jackson's choice in his reelection bid. Barbour soon withdrew his candidacy to preserve party unity, and threw his support to Van Buren.

As early as 1831, Barbour was rumored to be next in line for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court as soon as Jackson, now in his second term, had an opportunity to make an appointment. Nationalists, who disagreed with Barbour's states' rights and strict constructionist views, opposed Barbour as a possible candidate for the Court. In 1836 Barbour was nominated to succeed retiring justice Gabriel Duval, at the same time that roger b. taney was nominated as chief justice and confirmed to succeed john marshall, also retiring. As expected, Barbour's nomination drew criticism, but he was nevertheless confirmed by a vote of 30–11.

Barbour wrote only a dozen opinions for the Court. His most important majority opinion was in City of New York v. Miln, 36 U.S. 102, 11 Pet. 102, 9 L. Ed. 648 (1837). At issue in Miln was a New York state law requiring captains of vessels arriving at ports to provide harbor authorities with the names, ages, birthplaces, and occupations of arriving passengers. The Court considered whether the law was an unconstitutional invasion of the exclusive federal right to regulate interstate and international trade. The Court ruled that the law was a legitimate exercise of the state's "police power" to protect the health and welfare of its citizens. The decision provided the perfect opportunity for Barbour to expound upon his states' rights views. He wrote that the state not only had the right to impose such laws but also the "solemn duty … to advance the safety, happiness and prosperity of its people, and to provide for the general welfare, by any and every act of legislation, which it may deem to be conducive to these ends." The decision marked a significant departure from the philosophy of the previous Court, headed by Marshall, which had emphasized the importance of federal authority in matters that even indirectly involved interstate and international commerce. Though influential, Miln was criticized and limited by subsequent decisions of the Court.

In February 1841, at age fifty-eight, Barbour died suddenly of a heart attack. He thus served only five years on the Court, completing one of the shortest terms in its history.

further readings

Congressional Quarterly. 1989. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Elliott, Stephen P., ed. 1986. A Reference Guide to the United States Supreme Court. New York: Facts on File.