Benjamin Johnson Barbour was born on June 14, 1821, at Barboursville, the large and elegant Orange County estate of his parents,and . 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 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. 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‘s nomination for the Senate of Virginia, and four years later Governor 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.