John S. Barbour (1820–1892)


John S. Barbour served as a United States senator, but his biggest effect on Virginia’s political history came from his organizational skills. Barbour hailed from a politically active family and joined the House of Delegates in his twenties. After four years in the General Assembly, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad (later the Virginia Midland Railway) named him its president. Barbour held the position for thirty-four years. He began his rivalry with fellow transportation leader and politician William Mahone when railroad consolidation accelerated after the American Civil War (1861–1865). He reentered politics in 1880 when the Funder wing of the Conservative Party nominated him for Congress, winning the first of three terms. Three years later he became state chairman of the party, now called the Democratic Party, and led it to convincing win in that year’s elections over Mahone’s Readjuster Party. By emphasizing white supremacy and animosity to Mahone’s political power while accepting the Readjusters’ financial reforms, Barbour engineered the start of the Democrats’ nearly century-long domination of Virginia politics.

Early Years

John Strode Barbour was born on December 29, 1820, in Culpeper County, the eldest of five sons and second of seven children of John Strode Barbour (1790–1855) and Eliza A. Byrne Barbour. He was educated in private schools before attending the University of Virginia from 1838 to 1842. He studied law before leaving the university and was a practicing attorney in Culpeper County from 1842 until about 1851.

Orange and Alexandria Railroad

In 1847 Barbour was elected as a Democrat to the House of Delegates. He served for four years and soon became involved with railroads. The state regularly subsidized railroad construction by purchasing three-fifths of the shares in newly chartered companies, and in 1849 Barbour became the state’s representative on the board of directors of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. In October 1851 the other directors elected him president. He temporarily abandoned his political career and served as president of the railroad from then until he resigned in December 1884. During his long tenure, the railroad, which was renamed the Virginia Midland Railway in 1881, grew from only a few miles in Fairfax County to about five hundred miles of track between Alexandria and Danville with several branch roads. During the Civil War the railroad was open for only part of its length because of military operations, but Barbour used the road as much as possible to supply the Confederate army. He took no other part in the Civil War, unlike his brothers James Barbour (1823–1895) and Alfred Madison Barbour, who both served in the Convention of 1861 and held staff positions in the Confederate army.


On October 16, 1865, Barbour married Susan Sewell Daingerfield in Prince George’s County, Maryland. They lived in Alexandria and had no children. Soon after the Civil War the Orange and Alexandria fell under the influence of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which wished to use it to attract central Virginia commerce to Baltimore. At the same time William Mahone was attempting to consolidate three Southside Virginia railroads into the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad to draw central Virginia commerce to Norfolk. Understandably, Barbour opposed Mahone’s plan, and in 1869 he supported Henry Horatio Wells, a Radical Republican, for governor of Virginia against the more conservative Gilbert Carlton Walker primarily because Wells opposed Mahone and Walker supported him. In 1871, with Barbour’s support, the General Assembly passed a bill to sell the state’s interest in the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad purchased this stock and also the shares that the city of Alexandria owned and thereby gained complete control over the Orange and Alexandria. During the following decade Barbour cooperated with the Baltimore and Ohio in its competition with the Richmond and Danville Railroad for business in southern Virginia until the Baltimore and Ohio relinquished control of the new Virginia Midland Railway to the Richmond and Danville.

Revived Political Career

William Mahone

Barbour had taken no part in politics while running the Orange and Alexandria Railroad except as necessary to advance its business interests, but his sympathies lay with the conservative Democrats who formed the basis of the Funder Party that opposed William Mahone’s Readjusters. In 1880 the Funder convention in the Eighth Congressional District deadlocked in attempting to nominate a candidate for the House of Representatives and settled on Barbour, who had not been a candidate, as its compromise choice. He easily defeated Republican and Readjuster opponents in the general election and was twice reelected. He became chairman of the Committee on the District of Columbia and also involved himself deeply in Virginia politics.

In 1882 Barbour recruited John E. Massey, a former Readjuster and erstwhile ally of Mahone, to run for Congress against a Readjuster. Massey lost the election, but Barbour gained wide support as a potential state chairman of the Democratic Party. His success as a businessman, his organizational ability, and his ties to wealthy corporations hostile to Mahone and willing to finance expensive campaigns made Barbour a logical choice. In July 1883 the state convention unanimously elected him state party chairman after agreeing to his conditions that the Democrats would fight hard and would accept as final the settlement of the antebellum state debt that had led to Readjuster victories.

Coalition Rule in Danville

Barbour made organization the key to Democratic victory. He carefully and completely restructured the party and maintained close communications with workers at the local level. He recruited prominent speakers to canvass the state, drove party workers to get out the vote, and raised ample funds from wealthy businessmen. Barbour effectively played down the debt question in favor of two other issues—Mahone himself, portrayed by the party as a corrupt political dictator, and racist appeals to white fears of African American domination. The race issue came to the fore following a riot in Danville on November 3, 1883, on the eve of the legislative election, and the Democrats flooded the state with circulars predicting racial violence, miscegenation, and black rule if the Readjusters retained control of the General Assembly. They did not, and Barbour was widely hailed as the architect of the Democratic Party’s victory. In 1884 he led the Virginia delegation to the party’s national convention and was elected to the Democratic National Committee, a position he retained until his death.

For Governor of Virginia Gen. Fitz Lee.

Barbour led the Virginia Democrats to victory again in the 1884 presidential and congressional elections, but his influence in the party he had helped to re-create soon began to decline. Barbour clashed with Representative John W. Daniel over control of patronage during the Cleveland administration, and Daniel’s young followers often worked to undercut Barbour’s leadership. In 1885 Daniel’s allies overcame Barbour’s opposition and nominated Fitzhugh Lee for governor, but Barbour nonetheless effectively managed Lee’s successful campaign against John S. Wise, a Republican and former Readjuster.

Later Years

As a reward for his effective party leadership, Barbour hoped to be elected to the U.S. Senate to succeed Mahone, whose term expired in March 1887. However, Daniel defeated Barbour in the party caucus and was subsequently elected in December 1885 by the General Assembly as Mahone’s eventual successor. Stung by his defeat and the death of his wife the following February, Barbour retired from Congress and traveled in Europe during the 1886 election campaign. The Democrats missed his leadership and lost five of their eight seats in Congress. In 1887 he was reelected party chairman.

Memorial Addresses on the Life and Character of John S. Barbour

The campaign for the General Assembly that year became in part a campaign between Barbour and Mahone to succeed Harrison H. Riddleberger for Virginia’s other U.S. Senate seat in 1889. The Democratic Party easily won the election, the Democratic Party caucus unanimously nominated Barbour for the Senate, and on December 20, 1887, the General Assembly elected him by a strict party vote. Barbour resigned the party chairmanship after he became a senator on March 4, 1889, but when his successor fell ill he resumed the job, and he directed Philip W. McKinney‘s successful gubernatorial campaign against William Mahone that year. Barbour served in the U.S. Senate until his death three years later. A poor orator and by nature more an executive than a legislator, he rarely spoke and was not an influential senator.

Barbour was nominally an Episcopalian. However, his wife was a Catholic and after her death he affiliated with but never converted to the Catholic Church. Barbour died of heart failure in Washington on May 14, 1892, and two days later a Catholic funeral for him was held in the Senate, apparently the first time a Catholic priest ever officiated in the Senate chamber. Barbour was buried in the Daingerfield-Sewell family cemetery at Poplar Hill in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

December 29, 1820
John S. Barbour is born in Culpeper County, the son of John S. Barbour and Eliza A. Byrne Barbour.
John S. Barbour studies law at the University of Virginia.
1842—ca. 1851
John S. Barbour practices law in Culpeper County.
John S. Barbour, a Democrat, is elected to the House of Delegates.
John S. Barbour becomes the state's representative on the board of directors of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.
October 1851
John S. Barbour is elected president of the board of directors of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.
October 16, 1865
John S. Barbour marries Susan Sewell Daingerfield in Prince George's County, Maryland. They live in Alexandria and will have no children.
John S. Barbour, a conservative, supports Henry H. Wells, a radical Republican, for governor against the more conservative Gilbert C. Walker. He does this because of Walker's support for William Mahone.
John S. Barbour wins election to Congress from the Eighth Congressional District as a member of the Funder Party.
John S. Barbour, a Funder, wins reelection to Congress from the Eighth Congressional District.
Virginia's Conservative Party changes its name to the Democratic Party and chooses a new leader, John S. Barbour Jr., who organizes the party down to the precinct level. Barbour's leadership marks the beginning of a long era of Democratic domination.
July 1883
The state Democratic convention unanimously elects John S. Barbour chairman. He accepts on the condition that the party will accept as final the settlement of the antebellum state debt that has led to Readjuster victories.
November 3, 1883
Racial and political tensions erupt in an election-eve street fight in Danville that leaves at least one white and four black men dead.
John S. Barbour, a Funder, wins reelection to Congress from the Eighth Congressional District.
John S. Barbour is elected to the Democratic National Committee, a position he retains until his death.
December 1884
John S. Barbour resigns as president of the board of directors of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.
December 1885
The General Assembly elects John Warwick Daniel to succeed William Mahone in the U.S. Senate. Daniel remains a senator until his death.
John S. Barbour retires from Congress and travels in Europe. During his absence, Virginia Democrats lose five of their eight seats in Congress.
John S. Barbour is reelected chairman of the state Democratic Party.
December 20, 1887
The General Assembly elects John S. Barbour for the U.S. Senate.
March 4, 1889
John S. Barbour starts his term as U.S. Senator. He resigns his chairmanship of the state Democratic Party but resumes the job when his successor falls ill.
Following his mentor John S. Barbour Jr.'s death, Thomas Staples Martin becomes the Democratic Party leader. He will create a state political machine known as the Martin Organization.
May 14, 1892
John S. Barbour, a sitting U.S. Senator, dies of heart failure in Washington, D.C.
May 16, 1892
A Catholic funeral is held in the U.S. Senate for John S. Barbour. It is apparently the first time a Catholic priest has ever officiated in the Senate chamber. Barbour is buried in the Daingerfield-Sewell family cemetery at Poplar Hill in Prince George's County, Maryland.
  • Bromberg, Alan B. “Barbour, John Strode.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, et al., 334–336. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
  • Maddex, Jack P., Jr. The Virginia Conservatives, 1867–1879: A Study in Reconstruction Politics. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
  • Moger, Allen W. “Railroad Practices and Policies in Virginia after the Civil War.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 59 (Oct. 1951): 423–457.
  • Moger, Allen W. Virginia: Bourbonism to Byrd, 1870–1925. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1968.
  • Moore, James Tice. Two Paths to the New South: The Virginia Debt Controversy, 1870–1883. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.
  • Nelson, Scott Reynolds. Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
APA Citation:
Bromberg, Alan & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John S. Barbour (1820–1892). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/barbour-john-s-1820-1892.
MLA Citation:
Bromberg, Alan, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John S. Barbour (1820–1892)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 22 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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