Lucy Maria Johnson was born on November 29, 1775, in Orange County, the eldest of one son and two daughters of Benjamin Johnson and Elizabeth Barbour Johnson. As a child she was surrounded by exemplars of public service. Her father was an influential planter and member of the county court, and her uncle Thomas Barbour served Orange County as aand as justice of the peace. On October 20, 1795, Lucy Johnson married her first cousin James Barbour, a young lawyer and planter whom she had known since childhood, and the couple lived in Orange County.
Barbour gave birth between 1797 and 1821 to four sons and three daughters. A devoted and exacting mother, she was intimately involved in the details of her children’s moral development and education, but her life was marked neither by the domestic isolation nor the spirit of dependence that characterized the lives of many other antebellum plantation mistresses. James Barbour’s service as governor of Virginia from 1812 to 1814, U.S. senator from 1815 to 1825, secretary of war during the administration of John Quincy Adams, and minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain from August 1828 to May 1829 took the family to Richmond, Washington, D.C., and London, where Lucy Barbour earned a reputation as a gracious and popular hostess. She maintained an avid interest in the political issues that occupied her husband. Like him she strongly supported female education, and her friends included Emma Willard, head of the influential Troy Female Seminary in New York.
Lucy Barbour’s life stands out as a challenge to the image of antebellum southern ladies as passive and apolitical. While her married life had nurtured her interest in politics, only after her husband’s death in 1842 did Barbour translate her political concerns into public action. James Barbour had been instrumental in the creation of the Whig Party in Virginia and was a close friend of party leader Henry Clay. On November 17, 1844, Lucy Barbour wrote to the Richmond Whig from Barboursville, the family plantation, urging the “Whig women of Virginia” to give “some token of respect” to Clay, who had just lost his third presidential campaign. A group of Richmond women accordingly met on December 9, 1844, at the First Presbyterian Church, formed the Virginia Association of Ladies for Erecting a Statue to Henry Clay, and elected Barbour as president. In the ensuing months auxiliary societies sprang up throughout the state, and membership soon surpassed 2,500.
Barbour’s appeal set off a heated debate in the press over the proper bounds of women’s involvement in party politics. The Democratic press charged that the partisan activities of Barbour and her supporters were inappropriate for women. In a letter of December 4, 1844, that was also published in the Richmond Whig, Barbour countered such attacks, writing boldly that as the “nursing mothers of heroes, statesmen, and divines,” women deserved freedom of political thought and expression. In November 1845, having raised nearly $6,000, the association commissioned sculptor Joel Tanner Hart to execute a life-size marble statue of Clay. After years of delay Hart finally finished the statue in 1859. Barbour’s failing health had by then compelled her to delegate the management of the association to its vice presidents and director. The statue was unveiled on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond on April 12, 1860, with Democrats and Whigs, men and women, joining together in citywide celebration. Her youngest son, B. Johnson Barbour, delivered the dedicatory address extolling Clay’s devotion to the preservation of the Union.
Lucy Barbour died shortly thereafter at Barboursville, on November 25, 1860, and was buried in the family cemetery there.