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 slavery.

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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