James Birney was an abolitionist, an opponent of slavery, in the years before the American Civil War.
Birney was born on February 4, 1792, in Danville, Kentucky. His parents were wealthy slave owners, but like a number of other slaveholders in the Upper South, they believed that it was only a matter of time before slavery would end. Some of these people were morally opposed to slavery, believing that it was un-Christian and un-American to own another person. Other slave owners believed that slave labor was becoming too expensive. Birney shared his parents' views. He attended several schools, including Transylvania College and the Priestly Seminary at Danville. Birney graduated from Princeton University in 1810, and he began to study for a legal career in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1814, he opened a law practice in Danville.
Birney became a slave owner in 1816, when he married and received the slaves as a wedding gift. In 1818, Birney moved his family to a plantation near Huntsville, Alabama. He became involved in politics and served as a member of Alabama's constitutional convention. He also became a member of the Alabama legislature. His political career suffered when he became an outspoken opponent of Andrew Jackson and called for his fellow slave owners to support the gradual end of slavery.
In 1833, Birney moved his family back to his ancestral home in Kentucky. Birney was rarely at home, as he lectured across the South, calling for the gradual end to slavery and the colonization of the former slaves in Africa. He realized that gradual emancipation was not a practical way to end slavery. He began to endorse the immediate end of slavery and freed his own slaves in June 1834. At the same time, he also began to publish an anti-slavery paper in Danville. Residents favoring slavery threatened Birney's publisher. The publisher fled the community, and no other publishers were willing to assist him.
Birney moved his family to Cincinnati, Ohio, in October 1835. On January 1, 1836, Birney began publication of a new paper, The Philanthropist, which called for the immediate end to slavery and equal rights for African Americans with whites. The paper was printed for several months of 1936 in New Richmond, Ohio, but the printing operation eventually returned to Cincinnati. Many Cincinnatians opposed Birney's views. Some of these people were former slave owners and believed that African Americans were inferior to whites. Other people opposed slavery but believed African Americans would move to the North and deprive white people of jobs. On January 22, 1836, a group of white Cincinnatians urged the city government to prohibit Birney from publishing his paper. Birney was undaunted. To prevent Birney from printing, a mob of white Cincinnatians destroyed the newspaper's printing press on July 12, 1836. Undeterred, Birney remained in Cincinnati and continued to publish his newspaper. The mob returned on July 30, 1836, and destroyed the printing press again. Birney resumed publication of The Philanthropist in September 1836, and he continued to publish it in Cincinnati, until October of 1843.
Besides publication of his newspaper, Birney assisted the abolitionist movement in many other ways. In September 1837, he moved with his family to New York, where he became the secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He also served as the Liberty Party's candidate for president in both 1840 and 1844. He was the only man to run for the presidency under that party's banner. In 1844, Birney received approximately 62,000 votes out of more than 2.5 million votes cast. The small vote total for the Liberty Party's candidate showed how small the abolitionist movement was in the North during this period. Birney's candidacy, however, may have won the election for Democrat James K. Polk and lost the election for Henry Clay of the Whig Party. Abolitionists tended to favor the Whigs. If the Liberty Party had not run a candidate, some of the 62,000 people who voted for Birney may have voted for Clay. Clay lost the election by fewer than 38,000 votes.
In between his two presidential campaigns, Birney moved to Bay City, Michigan. Birney was one of the earliest settlers of Bay City. He engaged in farming. In 1855, Birney moved to the East Coast, where he died on November 25, 1857. He remained a champion of abolitionism until his death.
- Fess, Simeon D., ed. Ohio: A Four-Volume Reference Library on the History of a Great State. Chicago, IL: Lewis Publishing Company, 1937
- Fladeland, Betty. James Gillespie Birney: Slaveholder to Abolitionist. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1955.