Philip Pendleton Barbour was Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He is the only individual to serve as both Speaker of the House, and as a Justice on the Supreme Court.
Philip Pendleton Barbour was born on March 25, 1783, in Orange County, Virginia, to the family of a planter whose financial fortunes had suffered decline. His father, Thomas Barbour, served in the Virginia House of Burgesses before the American Revolution, and afterward in the Virginia General Assembly. His mother, Mary Pendleton Thomas Barbour, was herself a member of an influential Virginia family.
The family’s financial circumstances did not permit the kind of private education for Philip that was customary for Virginia gentry. Instead, he attended a local public school, where he demonstrated himself an exceptional student.
In 1812 the 29-year-old Philip Barbour followed family tradition when he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, where he rapidly obtained influential assignments to the judiciary and finance committees. Two years later, in 1814, he leapt from state politics onto the national stage by winning election to Congress. His service in the House was mirrored by that of his older brother James, who was a U.S. senator front Virginia. The two brothers followed different political trajectories in spite of their kinship, however. In the Senate, James leaned toward a nationalistic view that would ultimately make him at home as a member of President John Quincy Adams’s cabinet. Philip, in the House, lost no opportunity to trumpet the rights of states and the perils of excessive federal power.
Philip Barbour’s position on the Bonus Bill of 1817 was in accord with his general attitude. The bill proposed to subsidize the construction of roads and canals, including a road from NewYork to Washington, D.C., and on to New Orleans. Indignant at the prospect of such governmental overreaching, Barbour lambasted the proposed law as “a bill to construct a road from the liberties of the country by way of Washington to despotism.” Though his protests did not prevent the proposed legislation from vanning passage in the House and the Senate, Barbour’s fellow Virginian, President James Madison, shared the congressman’s constitutional scruples concerning the bill and vetoed it.
During his tenure in the House, Philip Barbour participated in debates concerning the proposed censure of General Andrew Jackson for his conduct of the Florida campaign against the Seminole Indians, especially his summary execution of two British subjects accused of having incited the Seminole against the United States. When the House debated the censure motion at the beginning of 1819, Barbour proved himself one of Jackson’s more vigorous defenders. His defense of the general foreshadowed his subsequent political alignment with Jacksonian Democrats. In February that same year, Barbour also participated in debates concerning the admission of Missouri to the Union. A states’ rights conservative and a fierce supporter of slave owners’ rights, Barbour had no doubt that attempts to limit slavery in Missouri were unconstitutional. In 1821 Barbour’s reputation among Southern members of the House earned him the post of Speaker. He held the position for two years, until Henry Clay returned to the position.
With Clay’s return as Speaker of the House, Barbour declined to run for another congressional term in 1824, choosing instead to return to the private practice of law. Thomas Jefferson failed to lure his fellow Virginian into a teaching post at the University of Virginia soon thereafter, though Barbour did agree to an appointment as a judge for the Virginia General Court. Two years later, however, Barbour won election again to his old seat in Congress and resigned his judicial appointment to return to the House of Representatives in December 1827. Over the next three years he gained increasing national stature as a leader of southern conservatives. In an action prescient of later Jacksonian policy, Barbour launched an aborted attempt to have the federal government rid itself of an ownership interest in the Bank of the United States, firing the first salvo in a battle that would ultimately overthrow the financial institution. During this period he also served as president of the Virginia Constitutional Convention, where he lent his conservative voice to a voting scheme that would have included slaves in apportionment ratios and restricted voting rights to males who owned land.
When Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828, Philip Barbour might have expected to receive some significant appointment in the new administration. But Jackson disappointed Barbour, offering him no other post than a position as federal district judge for Eastern District of Virginia. Though it was less than Barbour might have hoped for, he nevertheless accepted the judicial seat and held it from 1830 to 1836. He briefly toyed with a possible candidacy for vice president under Jackson at the time of the 1832 election. Many southerners distrusted Jackson’s personal choice for tire position—the “Little Magician” from New York, Martin Van Buren—and proposed instead a Jackson-Barbour ticket. But Democratic party leaders ultimately dissuaded Barbour from pursuing this course, and the Virginian decided to bide his time for the future.
Throughout the first half of the 1830s, speculation abounded concerning the likely retirement of John Marshall, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. More than one observer feared that Philip Barbour might have poised himself to win the nomination as chief justice if Marshall’s seat came open. John Quincy Adams viewed Marshall’s retirement with dread: “if [Marshall] should be now withdrawn, some shallow-pated wild-cat like Philip P. Barbour, fit for nothing but to tear the Union to rags and tatters, would be appointed in his place.” In 1835 Associate Justice Gabriel Duvall resigned from the Court, after being assured that President Jackson planned to nominate Roger B.
Taney to fill the vacant seat. In the summer of the same year, Chief Justice Marshall died, leaving Jackson with two seats on the Court. With Marshall’s seat now open, Jackson nominated Taney to become the new chief justice and Philip P. Barbour as an associate justice. The Senate eventually confirmed both nominations.
Barbour participated in the “revolution” in constitutional law accomplished by the Taney court. From a vantage point more than a century and a half later, though, the “revolution” appears more akin to a relatively minor adjustment in constitutional trajectory than a wholesale repudiation of the foundation established by the Court of Chief Justice John Marshall. Roger Taney and his colleagues reasserted the importance of state government in the constitutional system, retreating somewhat from the strong nationalistic tendencies of the Marshall court. But even as the Taney court tempered Marshall’s devotion to exclusive congressional control over interstate commerce, for example, it reasserted Marshall’s parallel devotion to the authority of the Court to resolve the nation’s constitutional disputes. Thus, justices such as Philip Barbour championed the cause of state participation in the emerging commercial landscape of the 19th century by vigorously asserting the Court’s own power to preside over the interpretation of the Constitution.
His sudden death from a heart attack on February 25, 1841, in Washington, D.C., though, robbed him of the opportunity to forge any significant legacy as a jurist.
Barbour himself authored one of the triumvirate of cases that set the new tone for the Taney court in 1837. In Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837), for which Chief Justice Taney wrote the Court’s opinion, and in Briscoe v. Bank of Kentucky (1837), for winch Associate Justice John McLean wrote the majority opinion, the Court expanded the power of states to control banking and odier forms of commercial development. Justice Barbour’s opinion for the Court in New Tork v. Miln (1837) similarly upheld the power of a state to require shipmasters to reveal information about passengers arriving in New York ports from other states or countries. Against the claim that this law intruded on congressional power to regulate commerce among the states, Barbour concluded for a majority of the Court that the law represented instead a valid exercise of the state’s police power—that is, its power to pass legislation to protect the health and welfare of its citizens. This power, Barbour insisted, had not been surrendered by states under the Constitution. It was, rather, “complete, unqualified, and exclusive.” After this beginning on the Court, Barbour settled into a relatively minor role as a supporter of Chief Justice Taney’s leadership, which was generally consistent with his own states’ rights inclinations. His sudden death from a heart attack on February 25, 1841, in Washington, D.C., though, robbed him of the opportunity to forge any significant legacy as a jurist.
According to his detractors—and these were many—Philip Barbour scarcely ever encountered a state law that violated, in his eyes, the Constitution of the United States.
“Daniel Webster, the great American lawyer, orator, and statesman, described Barbour in sympathetic terms but noted his peculiar myopia in the area of states’ rights and in his suspicion of the power of the national government:
Barbour, I really think is honest & conscientious; & he is certainly intelligent; but his fear, or hatred, of the powers of diis government is so great, his devotion to State rights so absolute, that perhaps [a situation] could hardly arise, in which he would be willing to exercise the power of declaring a state law void.”
He soon prospered sufficiently to marry Frances Johnson in 1804; together the couple had seven children.