Barbour, Philip P. (1783–1841)

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BARBOUR, PHILIP P. (1783–1841)

Philip P. Barbour was appointed to the Supreme Court by andrew jackson in December 1835 to fill the seat vacated by gabriel duvall. Born into Virginia's slaveholding plantation elite, Barbour held constitutional values that promoted the interest of that class. His law was largely self-taught, though he attended the College of William and Mary briefly in 1802 before beginning full-time practice in Orange County, Virginia. Beginning in 1812, Barbour served two years in the Virginia Assembly, following which he was elected to Congress where he served until 1825 and then again for two years beginning in 1827. For a brief time he was a Judge of the General Court of Virginia, and in 1830 he was appointed to the federal district court for Eastern Virginia, where he remained until assuming his Supreme Court duties in 1836.

Barbour's views on the Constitution were essentially those of the Richmond Junto of which he was a member. As a states ' rights constitutionalist, he was opposed to federally sponsored internal improvements, the protective tariff, and the second bank of the united states, an institution he viewed as a private corporation whose stock the government should not own. He defended slavery vigorously during the Missouri debates and, at the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829–1830, voted consistently with tidewater slaveholders against the democratic forces of the West. Barbour also supported the courtcurbing plan of Senator Richard Johnson of Kentucky, prompted by the Court's decision in cohens v. virginia (1821), and in 1827 he himself sponsored a measure that would have required a majority of five of seven Justices to hold a law unconstitutional.

Four years on the Court gave Barbour little chance to translate his states' rights philosophy and theory of judicial power into law. He wrote only a handful of opinions, and only in mayor of new york v. miln (1837) did he speak for the majority in an important case. There he upheld a New York regulation of immigrants as a state police power measure, but his exposition of doctrine was inchoate at best and did little to influence future decisions. States' rights thinking also informed his vote in charles river bridge v. warren bridge (1837) (where he joined the new Jacksonian majority in refusing to extend by implication the 1819 ruling in dartmouth college v. woodward) and in briscoe v. bank of kentucky, also in 1837 (where the new majority refused to invalidate state bank notes on the ground that they were not bills of credit prohibited by Article I, section 10, of the Constitution).

Although he was a consistent advocate of states' rights, Barbour was not, as john quincy adams charged, a "shallow-pated wild-cat" bent on destroying the Union. Indeed, compared to the states' rights views of peter daniel who succeeded him, Barbour's appear moderate and restrained. Even daniel webster conceded that he was "honest and conscientious," and Justice joseph story, for all his objection to Barbour's constitutional notions, thought him a "perspicacious" and "vigorous" judge.

R. Kent Newmyer


Cynn, P.P. 1913 Philip Pendleton Barbour. The John P. Branch Historical Papers (Randolph Macon College) 4:67–77.

Gatell, Frank O. 1969 Philip Pendleton Barbour. In Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel (eds.), The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969, Vol. 1, pages 717–734. New York: Chelsea House.