B. Johnson Barbour (1821–1894)

B. Johnson Barbour was a planter, orator, rector of the University of Virginia (1866–1872), and member of the House of Delegates (1879–1880). Born at his family's large Orange County estate, Barbour was the son of a governor and nephew of a U.S. Supreme Court justice. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1839 and spent the next decades farming, delivering public speeches, and serving as an Episcopal lay leader. Like his mother, Barbour supported the Whig Party and was a Unionist prior to the American Civil War (1861–1865). He took no active political or civil role during the conflict. In 1865, Barbour was elected to Congress but the body refused to seat anyone from a former Confederate state. He threw his energies, instead, into his alma mater, serving on the board of visitors and then as rector, advocating a curriculum that included applied sciences and teacher education. He served on the board of the fund that supported the school's Department of Agriculture, and on the board of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (1876–1878). As a member of the House of Delegates, Barbour led an investigation into the Blacksburg school that resulted in the appointment of a new board of visitors. Barbour died in 1894. MORE...

 

Benjamin Johnson Barbour was born on June 14, 1821, at Barboursville, the large and elegant Orange County estate of his parents, James Barbour and Lucy Johnson Barbour. He was the last of their four sons and three daughters and was given the same name as their second son, who had died in July 1820. Barbour received his first schooling in England while his father was serving as minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain. He later attended private schools in Virginia and was a student at the University of Virginia from 1837 to 1839, winning the honor of selection as final orator of the Jefferson Literary Society in 1838.

B. Johnson Barbour, as he was always known, spent much of his life out of the public eye as a planter and gentleman scholar. He inherited Barboursville when his father died in 1842, and by 1860 he was the wealthiest man in Orange County, with 7,000 acres of land and 150 slaves. Barbour was active in the Virginia State Agricultural Society from its revival in 1853. Widely known as a student of literature and a scholar of Shakespeare, he befriended such literary figures as John Reuben Thompson and W. Gordon McCabe. Barbour was one of the most popular public speakers in Virginia, renowned for long, elaborate orations, replete with literary and classical allusions. He was also an important lay leader in the Episcopal Church, often serving as a delegate to the council of the Diocese of Virginia and in 1880 as an alternate delegate to the national convention.

Barbour was outspoken in his support for the Whig Party and Henry Clay. He delivered the dedicatory address for the statue of Clay that was unveiled in Richmond on April 12, 1860, more than a decade after his mother spearheaded the fund-raising campaign for the monument. Barbour opposed secession until after the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, and he took no political or military part in the Civil War. In the first election held after the end of the war in 1865, he ran for the House of Representatives on a platform of sectional reconciliation and states' rights. He overwhelmed his two opponents, former congressman John Strother Pendleton and Richmond political gadfly Martin Meredith Lipscomb, but the House of Representatives refused to seat anyone elected in the southern states that year, and Barbour never served in Congress.

Barbour's most important public role centered on the University of Virginia. He was prominent in its General Alumni Association, serving four consecutive one-year terms as president starting in 1873. From 1865 to 1873 he sat on the board of visitors, and he was the rector of the university 1866 to 1872. As rector, he attempted to reduce the university's emphasis on classical studies in favor of a more practical curriculum, including the education of public schoolteachers, and he oversaw the establishment of schools of applied mathematics, civil engineering, and applied chemistry. Barbour often faced opposition from conservative faculty members intent on shifting power over the university's administration from the board to themselves. Combining his interests in education and agriculture Barbour served from 1879 until his death on the board of the university's Miller Fund, which supported the school's Department of Agriculture, and he served from 1876 to 1878 on the board of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in Blacksburg.

During Reconstruction Barbour became a Democrat and later opposed the Readjusters, who wished to reduce the taxpayer-funded principal of the state's antebellum public debt and who also courted African American voters. In 1879 he won election to the House of Delegates. During his one term he chaired the Committee on Schools and Colleges and led its investigation into the strife-torn administration of the Agricultural and Mechanical College, which resulted in the appointment of a new board of visitors for the college. In 1885 Barbour unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party's nomination for the Senate of Virginia, and four years later Governor Fitzhugh Lee named him one of six delegates to a convention in Saint Louis to promote the inflationary free coinage of silver.

Barbour married Caroline Homassel Watson on November 7, 1844. Of their six sons and five daughters two sons and three daughters survived childhood. Barbour suffered serious injuries when he fell into a ditch in Charlottesville and died a few weeks later at Barboursville on December 2, 1894. He was buried in the family cemetery at Barboursville.

Time Line

  • June 14, 1821 - B. Johnson Barbour is born at Barboursville, in Orange County.
  • 1837–1849 - B. Johnson Barbour attends the University of Virginia.
  • 1838 - B. Johnson Barbour wins the honor of selection as final orator of the Jefferson Literary Society at the University of Virginia.
  • 1842 - B. Johnson Barbour inherits Barboursville, the Orange County estate of his father, James Barbour.
  • November 7, 1844 - B. Johnson Barbour and Caroline Homassel Watson marry.
  • April 12, 1860 - A memorial statue of Henry Clay is unveiled in the State Capitol. B. Johnson Barbour delivers the dedicatory oration. The project's fund-raising was led by his mother, Lucy Johnson Barbour.
  • 1865 - B. Johnson Barbour is elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, which refuses to seat him and any other representatives from the former Confederate states.
  • 1865–1873 - B. Johnson Barbour serves on the University of Virginia's board of visitors.
  • 1866–1872 - B. Johnson Barbour serves as rector of the University of Virginia.
  • 1873–1877 - B. Johnson Barbour serves four one-year terms as president of the University of Virginia's General Alumni Association.
  • 1876–1878 - B. Johnson Barbour serves on the board of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in Blacksburg.
  • 1879–1894 - B. Johnson Barbour serves on the board of the University of Virginia's Miller Fund.
  • 1879–1880 - B. Johnson Barbour serves in the House of Delegates.
  • 1885 - B. Johnson Barbour wins the Democratic Party's nomination for the Senate of Virginia, but loses in the general election.
  • 1889 - Governor Fitzhugh Lee names B. Johnson Barbour one of six delegates to a convention in Saint Louis to promote the inflationary free coinage of silver.
  • December 2, 1894 - B. Johnson Barbour dies at his Barboursville home in Orange County.

References

Further Reading
Bromberg, Alan B. "Barbour, Benjamin Johnson." In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, et al., 328–329. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Bromberg, A. B., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. B. Johnson Barbour (1821–1894). (2017, February 6). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Barbour_B_Johnson_1821-1894.

  • MLA Citation:

    Bromberg, Alan B. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "B. Johnson Barbour (1821–1894)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 6 Feb. 2017. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: January 6, 2017 | Last modified: February 6, 2017