Philip Pendleton Barbour is hardly a household name today, but he was a leading figure in the politics of antebellum America. A successful lawyer, he won election to the House of Representatives in 1814 and rose to become its Speaker in less than a decade. Though much of his limited government agenda was out of step with the postwar embrace of James Madison's "American System," his positions became dominant in American politics with the rise of Andrew Jackson to the presidency. For his support of the Jacksonian program, he was rewarded with appointment to the federal bench, then nomination and confirmation as a Supreme Court justice in 1835, a position he enjoyed for only six years before dying at the age of 56 in 1841.
For all of Barbour's importance in the politics of his era, there has been until now no full-length biography of him. William Belko endeavors to fill the void with this book, which provides an overview of his life and political career. Belko's focus is on Barbour's ideology and the historical context of his life, as he charts Barbour's ideological evolution from the staunch defender of the "Principles of '98" articulated in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions to the preeminent exponent of Jacksonian democracy. This is the strongest part of the book, and rewards reading by itself. Close behind it in value is Belko's description of Barbour's national political career, as he makes a good case for arguing that Barbour's importance has often been overlooked by scholars.
Yet considerable flaws balance against these accomplishments. In contrast to his extensive (and, too frequently, laudatory) coverage of Barbour's political beliefs Belko's discussion of Barbour's family life is virtually nonexistent and his analysis of Barbour's legal career even less so. This is especially disappointing given Barbour's subsequent career on the bench, and even there Belko provides next to nothing about his handling of his job or the major cases over which he presided. Belko's penultimate chapter, which covers Barbour tenure on the Court, rectifies this somewhat by detailing the major cases before the Court and Barbour's role in the decisions, though even here his coverage is not as extensive as I would have hoped. Because of these flaws the book is not quite the full biography that Barbour needs and deserves, yet is likely to remain the final word on him for some time to come thanks in no small measure to the quality of Belko's analysis of Barbour's politics.