Birney, James Gillespie
Birney, James Gillespie 1792–1857
James Gillespie Birney was born in Danville, Kentucky, on February 4, 1792. A politician and reformer, Birney was one of the leading abolitionists in the United States, serving as corresponding secretary of the American AntiSlavery Society (AAS) and twice as the presidential candidate of the abolitionist Liberty Party.
The son of a southern slaveholder, Birney graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1810, and later he privately studied law. Upon returning home to Kentucky in 1814, he was elected to the town council of Danville, and then to the state legislature in 1816. In that same year, Birney acquired his first slaves. In 1818 Birney moved to Alabama Territory, where by 1821 he had a total of 43 slaves. Although not a delegate, he played an important behind-the-scenes role in the writing of Alabama’s first state constitution, and served in Alabama’s first state legislature in 1819.
However, Birney soon experienced a crisis that changed his life. Business reverses, crop failures, gambling debts, and extravagant spending brought him to financial ruin. These problems and the death of a daughter led to alcohol abuse. After selling most of his slaves, he moved to Huntsville, Alabama, to practice law and serve as a state attorney from 1823 to 1827. Birney ultimately found solace in religion. He joined the Presbyterian Church in 1826 and quickly became a zealous convert and moral reformer. He was elected to Huntsville’s Board of Aldermen in 1828, and he became mayor of the city in 1829. Birney served in both positions until 1830, pursuing a controversial reformist agenda of securing free public education and a municipal temperance ordinance.
Increasingly, however, Birney focused on the problem of slavery. He had long held mildly antislavery views, claiming that slavery was a great economic, social, and moral evil that did much harm to the nation. He saw slavery as a necessary evil, however, one that would have to be borne with patience until some practical plan of emancipation could be found. As a politician, Birney tried to soften the laws of slavery in Kentucky and Alabama. After his religious conversion, Birney increasingly supported African colonization, the plan to resettle American blacks in Africa. Birney hoped this plan would encourage slaveholders to free their slaves, while also removing African Americans to a place where—freed from the limitations imposed by racism—they could achieve success. In 1832 and 1833, Birney served as a full-time agent for the American Colonization Society, promoting the cause in several southern states.
After returning to Kentucky in 1833 to be near his aged father, Birney initially continued his work of promoting gradual abolition and colonization. Yet he had increasing doubts about colonization, a logistically complex and expensive plan that had so far stirred little genuine support from slaveholders, except from those who believed colonization might actually strengthen, rather than weaken, slavery. Colonization or any other plan of gradual emancipation now seemed fundamentally flawed to Birney, who saw that gradualism failed to condemn slavery—and the selfishness and prejudice that undergirded it—as immoral.
Encouraged by his antislavery friend Theodore Dwight Weld, the now well-known and highly regarded Birney shocked the South in 1834 by publicly denouncing slavery as sin and calling for its immediate abolition. He underscored the sincerity of his conversion by freeing his own slaves and paying them back wages. Birney went even further in 1835, when he announced his intention of publishing an abolitionist newspaper, the Philanthropist, in his hometown of Danville. Threats of mob violence against him soon forced Birney to move to Cincinnati, Ohio, for his physical safety. There he finally established the Philanthropist in January 1836, under the sponsorship of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. In July 1836, a mob attacked the publication’s offices as well as Cincinnati’s African American community. Birney, however, persevered and quickly resumed publishing the Philanthropist.
By 1836, Birney’s nationally publicized conversion from slaveholder to abolitionist and his heroic defense of freedom of the press made him arguably the most universally respected and admired figure among the abolitionists. For this reason, as well as for his legal training and long experience as a professional reformer, Birney was appointed corresponding secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1837.
At a time of growing factionalism among the abolitionists, it was hoped that this widely admired figure could be a peacemaker and unifier. Instead, Birney became entangled in growing controversies regarding the role of women and political action in the abolitionist movement. A born and bred southern gentleman, Birney was too cautious to breech the gender line by supporting leadership roles for women, and he feared that radical positions on side issues like women’s rights and nonresistance might alienate potential supporters. Birney, therefore, sided with Lewis Tappan and others who fought against the radical followers of William Lloyd Garrison, trying unsuccessfully to limit the role of women in the AAS. After the Garrisonians gained control of the AAS in 1840, Birney withdrew from the organization and increasingly concentrated on abolitionist political activity.
Although he initially opposed the formation of an abolitionist third party, believing that it would be more practical to convert one of the two major parties to antislavery, Birney allowed himself to be nominated for the presidency by the newly formed Liberty Party in 1840. Birney’s candidacy in 1840 was largely symbolic; he did not bother to set up a campaign organization and was in England attending the World Antislavery Convention for virtually the entire period between his nomination and the election. Not surprisingly, he won only about 7,000 votes. Upon returning to the United States, Birney moved to the Michigan frontier, hoping to find opportunities to improve his family’s financial circumstances.
In 1844, Birney ran as the Liberty Party candidate for a second time and waged a much more vigorous campaign, speaking throughout the northeastern states in opposition to the candidates of the two major parties, the Democratic expansionist candidate, James K. Polk, and the Whig candidate, Henry Clay. In a campaign dominated by the issue of Texas annexation, thousands of abolitionist Whigs shifted their votes to Birney when Clay softened his earlier opposition to annexation. Although observers at the time believed this defection cost Clay the election, many modern historians have cast doubt on this idea.
Birney anticipated running again in 1848, but a stroke in August 1845 virtually ended his political career. He continued to write antislavery articles and pamphlets, and he also tried to influence Liberty Party politics. He opposed, unsuccessfully, the merger of the party with the Conscience Whigs and Democratic Barnburners to create the Free-Soil Party in 1848. In 1853 Birney retired to a utopian community, the Raritan Bay Union, in Eagles-wood, New Jersey, where he died on November 25, 1857.
Fladeland, Betty. 1955. James Gillespie Birney: Slaveholder to Abolitionist. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Lamb, Robert Paul. 1994. “James G. Birney and the Road to Abolitionism.” Alabama Review 47 (2): 83–134.
Harold D. Tallant
James Gillespie Birney
James Gillespie Birney
A lawyer and presidential candidate, James Gillespie Birney (1792-1857) was the most influential American political leader of the antislavery movement in its early phases.
James G. Birney was born on Feb. 4, 1792, the son of a Scotch-Irish immigrant who settled in Kentucky in 1788 and became one of the state's richest men. He went to Transylvania University and graduated from Princeton in 1810. After studying law in Philadelphia, he was admitted to the bar in 1814 and settled in Danville, Ky. He married Agatha McDowell, of a prominent Kentucky family, in 1816 and was elected to the lower house of the Kentucky Legislature. He moved to Alabama in 1818 and bought a cotton plantation near Huntsville. Although he owned slaves, he favored the eventual abolition of the institution of slavery. Financial reverses forced him to sell his plantation in 1823, and he resumed his law practice in Huntsville.
Birney's conscience was increasingly troubled by slavery, and he did not hesitate to speak and write against it. In 1826 he began antislavery work in earnest. He became a member of the American Colonization Society, which hoped to eliminate slavery by resettling blacks in Africa, and was instrumental in forcing a bill through the Alabama Legislature prohibiting the importation of slaves into the state for sale or hire. A trip through the North in 1830 convinced him that slavery worked to the South's political, cultural, and economic disadvantage; a weeklong conversation with Theodore Weld, the abolitionist lecturer, who visited Alabama in 1832, reaffirmed his belief that it should no longer be tolerated. That year Birney was appointed southwestern agent for the American Colonization Society, but in 1833 he moved back to Danville because he felt that gradual emancipation might be achieved more readily in Kentucky than in Alabama and thus serve as an example to the South.
Birney soon decided that gradualism would not work and that slavery must be abolished immediately. He freed his slaves in 1834 and helped form the Kentucky Antislavery Society. He planned to publish an antislavery paper in Danville, but threats led him to move to Cincinnati, where he arrived in time to assume an important role in the formation of the Ohio Antislavery Society. He became editor of its paper, the Philanthropist, which first appeared in January 1836. Although his office was looted three times and Birney himself narrowly escaped injury at the hands of a mob, he made the paper one of the most influential abolitionist organs in the West.
Birney was a believer in political action (as William Lloyd Garrison and some other abolitionists were not). The most effective way to abolish slavery, in Birney's view, was to elect men to Congress who would vote it out of existence. He left Cincinnati to become executive secretary of the American Antislavery Society in New York, and he tried vainly to persuade the dissident elements of the movement to work together. When the society split in 1840, Birney emerged as leader of its political action wing. That year he accepted the presidential nomination of the new Liberty party and polled 7,069 votes. In 1844, again the Liberty nominee, he drew more than 62,000 crucial votes, for 15,000 of them came from New York; if Henry Clay had won that state, Clay would have become president instead of James K. Polk.
Meanwhile, Birney had moved to Michigan and in 1841, after his wife's death, married the sister-in-law of the abolitionist Gerrit Smith. Birney's political future appeared to be bright, but a fall from a horse in 1845 left him partially paralyzed and ended his public career. He moved to New Jersey in 1853 and died on Nov. 25, 1857.
The biography of Birney written by his son, William Birney, James G. Birney and His Times (1890), is still useful. The best modern study is Betty Fladeland, James G. Birney: Slaveholder to Abolitionist (1955). Dwight L. Dumond, ed., The Letters of James G. Birney (2 vols., 1938), is indispensable. □