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James G. Birney

James G. BirneyAKA James Gillespie Birney

Born: 4-Feb-1792
Birthplace: Danville, KY
Died: 25-Nov-1857
Location of death: Perth Amboy, NJ
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Activist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Abolitionist Liberty Party candidate

The American reformer, James G. Birney, leader of the conservative abolitionists in the United States from about 1835 to 1845, was born in Danville, Kentucky, of a family of wealth and influence, on the 4th of February 1792. He graduated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1810. In 1814, after a course of legal study, he began the practice of the law at Danville. He entered immediately, as a Democrat, into Kentucky politics, and political ambition caused his removal in 1818 to northern Alabama, near Huntsville. There was at that time in the southwest much anti-slavery sentiment. Birney's father was among those who advocated a "free state" constitution for Kentucky, and the home environment of the boy had thus fostered a questioning attitude towards slavery, though later he was himself a slave-holder. In the general assembly of Kentucky in 1816, and in that of Alabama in 1819, he opposed inter-state rendition of fugitive slaves and championed liberal slave-laws. His career as a lawyer in Alabama was exceptionally brilliant; but his political career was abruptly wrecked by his opposition in 1819 to Andrew Jackson, whose friends controlled the state. His tariff and anti-slavery views, moreover, carried him more and more away from the Democratic party and toward the Whigs.

About 1826 he began to show an active interest in the American Colonization Society, and in 1832-33 served as its agent in the southwest. In 1833 he returned to Danville, and devoted himself wholly to the anti-slavery cause. He freed his own slaves in 1834. Convinced that gradual emancipation would merely stimulate the inter-state slave trade, and that the dangers of a mixed labor system were greater than those of emancipation in mass, he formally repudiated colonization in 1834; moreover, gradualism had become for him an unjustifiable compromise in a matter of religion and justice. At this time also he abandoned the Whig party. He delivered anti-slavery addresses in the North, accepted the vice-presidency of the American Anti-Slavery Society and announced his intention to establish an anti-slavery journal at Danville (1835). For this he was ostracized from Kentucky society; his anti-slavery journals were withheld in the mails; he could not secure a public hall or a printer. In these circumstances, he removed to Cincinnati, Ohio, and there, in January 1836, founded the Philanthropist, which, in spite of rancorous opposition, became of great influence in the northwest. Birney soon relinquished its active control to Gamaliel Bailey in order to serve the Anti-Slavery Society as secretary and as a lecturer. He favored immediatism, but he differed sharply from the Garrisonian abolitionists, who abhorred the federal Constitution and favored secession. He always wrote, spoke and labored for the permanent safety of the Union. The assaults of the South in defense of slavery upon free speech, free press, the right of petition and trial by jury, he pronounced "exorbitant claims... on the liberties of the free states"; the contest had become, he said, "one not alone of freedom for the blacks but of freedom for the whites." Twenty-three years before William Henry Seward characterized as an "irrepressible conflict" the antagonism between freedom and slavery, Birney proclaimed: "There will be no cessation of conflict until slavery shall be exterminated or liberty destroyed" -- "liberty and slavery cannot both live in juxtaposition" (1835.) The ends being political, so also, thought Birney, must be the means; as parties in the south were fusing, he labored to re-align parties in the north, and advocated the formation of an independent anti-slavery party. After the separation of the Garrisonian and the political abolitionists in 1840 the new party was formed, and in 1840, and again in 1844, as the Liberty party, it made Birney its candidate for the Presidency. In 1840 he received 7069 votes; in 1844, 62,263. A fall from his horse in 1845 made him a hopeless invalid, and completely removed him from public life. He died at Perth Amboy, New Jersey, on the 25th of November 1857.

Two of Birney's sons, William Birney (1819-1907) and David Bell Birney (1825-1864), were prominent as officers on the Federal side during the Civil War in America.

Father: James Gillespie Birney
Mother: Martha Reed (d. 1795)
Sister: Anna Maria Birney (b. 4-Jul-1793, d. 30-Mar-1859)
Wife: Agatha McDowell (d. 1839)
Son: James G. Birney (b. 7-Jun-1817, d. 1888)
Son: William Birney (b. 28-May-1819, d. 1907)
Daughter: Margaret Birney (b. 1821, d. 1822)
Son: Robert Dion Birney (b. 1823, d. 1863)
Son: David Bell Birney (b. 29-May-1825, d. 18-Oct-1864)
Son: Arther Hopkins Birney (b. 1827, d. 1833)
Daughter: Martha Reed Birney (b. 1829, d. 1833)
Son: George Birney (b. 1832, d. 1856)
Daughter: Florence Birney (b. 1835)
Daughter: Georgina Birney (b. 1836, d. 1836)
Daughter: Ellen Birney (b. 1838, d. 1838)
Wife: Elizabeth Fitzhugh (b. 1803)
Son: Fitzhugh Birney (b. 1842, d. 1864)
Daughter: Anna Hughes Birney (b. 1843, d. 1846)

    University: Transylvania College
    University: College of New Jersey (1810)

    Alabama State House of Representatives
    Kentucky State House of Representatives
    Irish Ancestry

Is the subject of books:
James G. Birney and His Times: The Genesis of the Republican Party with Some Account of Abolition Movements in the South before 1828, 1890, BY: William Birney
James Gillespie Birney: Slaveholder to Abolitionist, 1969, BY: Betty Lorraine Fladeland

Author of books:
On the Sin of Holding Slaves (1834, nonfiction)
Letter on Colonization (1834, nonfiction)
Vindication of Abolitionists (1835, nonfiction)
American Churches the Bulwark of American Slavery (1840, nonfiction)
Speeches in England (1840, nonfiction)

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