This biography describes a little-known but important Virginian of the Jeffersonian period who is remembered today, when he is remembered at all, for his central role in the Missouri Compromises. His obscurity is undeserved. An eminent agriculturalist and an outspoken social reformer, he was also a prominent political leader whose active participation in state and national affairs during the formative first four decades of the nineteenth century exerted a positive influence upon the country's history.
Barbour's life provides an interesting and unusual portrait of a Jeffersonian Republican whose interpretation of republicanism differed significantly from that of his contemporaries. If we exclude the principal party leaders Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, he stands in a category apart from other Virginia Republican leaders of his generation. Of all his many able and politically active contemporaries -- John Taylor, Spencer Roane, John Randolph, Philip Pendleton Barbour, Thomas Ritchie, William B. Giles, and John Tyler -- he alone embraced the progressive spirit and liberal political faith of the Jeffersonian age and avoided the pitfall of regional particularism into which the rest ultimately fell. His contemporaries treated the Jeffersonian political philosophy as fixed dogma, as static principles which they relentlessly tried to impose upon the national government to restrain its power. He viewed the same philosophy as organic doctrine which, to remain viable, must evolve and change with the times. He was, in short, the exception to the political rule in Virginia -- a practical-minded political moderate who grafted onto the dominant political philosophy of his day those elements of the nationalist creed that were necessary for governing a dynamic, changing nation.
In addition to chronicling the life and times of a man who has long warranted a biography, this book attempts to understand Barbour in the context of his culture. His career dramatizes in interesting ways many of the problems and contradictions of his culture and details his personal struggle to cope with important changes occurring in the patterns of American life and thought. His life provides a window through which his age can be viewed. It also affords another and somewhat different vantage point for viewing party politics, both in Virginia and the nation, and for assessing the impact that individuals like him exerted on political affairs; for understanding how the Virginia Republican party functioned, who its leaders were, and how they acquired and exercised leadership; and for discerning the relative importance of the diverse economic, social, and . . .