Birney, James G. (1792–1857)

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BIRNEY, JAMES G. (1792–1857)

A slaveholder, James Gillespie Birney studied law under alexander dallas, was a mildly antislavery politician in Kentucky and Alabama, and was a spokesman for the American Colonization Society. In 1834 he freed his remaining slaves, abandoned colonization, and formed the Kentucky Anti-Slavery Society. Finding Kentucky too dangerous for an abolitionist, Birney moved to Cincinnati, and in 1836 began publishing an antislavery newspaper, The Philanthropist. Unlike william lloyd garrison, whom he bitterly opposed, Birney believed that the United States Constitution could be a useful tool for abolitionists. He also argued for abolitionist political activity. In 1840 he was the Liberty party candidate for the presidency, but he drew only 7,069 votes. Four years later he won 62,300 votes, helping set the stage for more successful antislavery parties.

Birney was involved in three legal cases that helped develop his antislavery constitutionalism. In 1836 an anti-abolitionist mob in Cincinnati destroyed his press. Birney hired salmon p. chase in a successful suit against the mob leaders for damages to the press. In 1837 Birney sheltered and hired a runaway slave named Matilda, and when she was captured, Chase and Birney defended her on the ground that having voluntarily been brought to Ohio, she therefore was not a fugitive slave; they also made the dubious argument that slaves who escaped from Kentucky into Ohio could not be recaptured, because the north-west ordinance provided only for the return of slaves who escaped from the "original states." Matilda was returned south, but Chase and Birney were more successful in appealing Birney's conviction for harboring slaves, which the Ohio Supreme Court overturned.

(See abolitionist constitutional theory. )

Paul Finkelman


Fladeland, Betty L. 1955 James Gillespie Birney: Slaveholder to Abolitionist. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.