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.


Further Reading on James Gillespie Birney

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.