A Civil War Biography
James Gillespie Birney
Birney was born 4 February 1792 into a wealthy family in Danville,
Kentucky. He studied law at Princeton then established a practice in
Danville. He served from 1816 until 1817 as a member of the Kentucky
state legislature then moved his law practice to Huntsville, Alabama
in 1818. He was elected to the Alabama state legislature in 1819 and
served until 1820, most noted for incorporating into the state
constitution provisions that empowered the legislature to emancipate
slaves and to prohibit selling slaves brought into the state. The
issue of slavery became paramount to his thinking.
He abandoned his law practice in 1832 and became an agent for the
American Colonization Society establishing branches in Alabama then
in Kentucky after moving back to Danville. He became president of
the Kentucky society shortly after it was established but resigned
within a year, disillusioned with the society's scheme of gradual
emancipation based on racial inferiority. By 1834 he was calling for
immediate emancipation. He tried to establish a newspaper in
Kentucky to disseminate his views but quickly discovered such views
were not widely accepted in his home state.
He moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and in 1836 began publishing the
Philanthropist, the first anti-slavery paper in the mid-west. In
1837 he was elected secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Two factions developed within the society, one, championed by
William Lloyd Garrison, advocating the inflammatory apolitical
approach and the other emphasizing an electoral method. Birney,
believing in the latter, saw the need for a new political party
whose sole purpose was to promote the abolition of slavery and the
Liberty Party was founded in 1840. He was vice-president of the
World Anti-Slavery Convention in England in 1840 where he wrote The
American Churches, the Bulwarks of American Slavery. While still
abroad, he was made the Liberty Party's first presidential
candidate. He argued that the Bible and the Constitution proscribed
He was also the Liberty Party candidate for governor of Michigan in
1843 and 1845. As the Liberty Party presidential candidate in 1844
Birney pulled enough support from the Whig candidate, Henry Clay,
that the Democrat James K. Polk was elected. Birney retired from
public life after the election of 1845 following an injury that
invalided him. He died on 25 November 1857 in Perth Amboy, Middlesex
County, New Jersey.
Birney's two sons, David Bell Birney and William Birney would both
become Union generals during the war. David, born 29 May 1825, rose
from lieutenant colonel of the 23rd Pennsylvania, a 90 day regiment
which David, a Philadelphia lawyer and businessman, largely
financed, to major general and commander of the X Corps before
falling ill with malaria from which he died on 18 October 1864.
William, born 28 May 1819, rose from captain of the 1st New Jersey
Infantry to brigadier general and division commander in the XXV
Corps, a Corps made up all African American troops. William's
division was comprised of black troops he recruited in Maryland.
William was brevetted major general of volunteers on 13 March 1865.
After the war he became US Attorney for the District of Columbia and
wrote his memoirs. William died on 14 August 1907, having spent the
latter part of his life living in Forest Glen, Maryland.
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