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James Gillespie Birney

BIRNEY, James Gillespie, statesman, born in Danville, Kentucky, 4 February 1792; died in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, 25 November 1857. His ancestors were Protestants of the province of Ulster, Ireland. His father, migrating to tire United States at sixteen years of age, settled in Kentucky, became a wealthy merchant, manufacturer, and farmer, and for many years was president of the Danville bank. His mother died when he was three years old, and his early boyhood was passed under the care of a pious aunt. Giving promise of talent and force of character, he was liberally educated with a view to his becoming a lawyer and statesman. After preparation at good schools and at Transylvania University he was sent to Princeton, where he was graduated with honors in 1810. Having studied law for three years, chiefly under Alexander J. Dallas, of Philadelphia, he returned to his native place in 1814 and began practice. In 1816 he married a daughter of William McDowell, judge of the United States circuit court and one of several brothers who, with their relatives, connections, and descendants, were the most influential family in Kentucky. In the same year he was elected to the legislature, in which body he opposed and defeated in its original form a proposition to demand of the states of Ohio and Indiana the enactment of laws for the seizure, imprisonment, and delivery to owners of slaves escaping into their limits. His education in New Jersey and Pennsylvania at the time when the gradual emancipation laws of those states were in operation had led him to favor that solution of the slavery problem. In the year 1818 he removed to Alabama, bought a cotton plantation near Huntsville, and served as a member of the first legislature that assembled under the constitution of 1819. Though he was not a member of the convention that framed the instrument, it was chiefly through his influence that a provision of the Kentucky constitution, empowering the general assembly to emancipate slaves on making compensation to the owners, and to prohibit the bringing of slaves into the state for sale, was copied into it, with amendments designed to secure humane treatment for that unfortunate class. In the legislature he voted against a resolution of honor to General Jackson, assigning his reasons in a forcible speech. This placed him politically in a small minority. In 1823, having found planting unprofitable, partly because of his refusal to permit his overseer to use the lash, he resumed at Huntsville the practice of his profession, was appointed solicitor of the northern circuit, and soon gained a large and lucrative practice. In 1826 he made a public profession of religion, united with the Presbyterian Church, and was ever afterward a devout Christian. About the same time he began to contribute to the American colonization society, regarding it as preparing the way for gradual emancipation. In 1827 he procured the enactment by the Alabama legislature of a statute "to prohibit the importation of slaves into this state for sale or hire." In 1828 he was a candidate for presidential elector on the Adares ticket in Alabama, canvassed the state for the Adams party, and was regarded as its most prominent member. He was repeatedly elected mayor of Huntsville, and was recognized as the leader in educational movements and local improvements. In 1830 he was deputed by the trustees of the state University to select and recommend to them five persons as president and professors of that institution, also by the trustees of the Huntsville female seminary to select and employ three teachers. In the performance of these trusts he spent several months in the Atlantic states, extending his tour as far north as Massachusetts. His selections were approved. Returning home by way of Kentucky, he called on Henry Clay, with whom he had been on terms of friendship and political sympathy, and urged that statesman to place himself at the head of the gradual emancipation movement in Kentucky. The result of the interview was the final alienation in public matters and politics of the parties to it, though their friendly personal relations remained unchanged. Mr. Birnev did not support Mr. Clay politically after 1830 or vote for him in 1832. For several years he was the confidential adviser and counsel of the Cherokee nation, an experience that led him to sympathize with bodies of men who were wronged under color of law. In 1831 he had become so sensible of tire evil influences of slavery that he determined to remove his large family to a free state, and in the winter of that year visited Illinois and selected Jacksonville as the place of his future residence. Returning to Alabama, he was winding up his law business and selling his property with a view to removal, when he received, most unexpectedly, an appointment from the American colonization society as its agent for the southwest. From motives of duty he accepted and devoted himself for one year to the promotion of the objects of that society. Having become convinced that the slaveholders of the gulf states, with few exceptions, were hostile to the idea of emancipation in the future, he lost faith in the efficacy of colonization in that region. In his conversations about that time with southern politicians and men of influence he learned enough to satisfy him that, although the secret negotiations in 1829 of the Jackson administration for the purchase of Texas had failed, the project of annexing that province to the United States and forming several slave states out of its territory had not been abandoned; that a powerful combination existed at the south for the purpose of sending armed adventurers to Texas; and that southern politicians were united in the design to secure for the south a majority in the United States senate. The situation seemed to him to portend the permanence of slavery, with grave danger of civil war and disunion of the states. Resigning his agency and relinquishing his Illinois project, he removed, in November 1833, to Kentucky for the purpose of separating it from the slave states by effecting the adoption of a system of gradual emancipation. He thought its example might be followed by Virginia and Tennessee, and that thus the slave states would be placed in a hopeless minority, and slavery in process of extinction. But public opinion in his native state had greatly changed since he had left it; the once powerful emancipation element had been weakened by the opposition of political leaders, and especially of Henry Clay. His efforts were sustained by very few. in June 1834, he set free his own slaves and severed his connection with tile colonization society, the practical effect of which, he had found, was to afford a pretext for postponing emancipation indefinitely. From this time he devoted himself with untiring zeal to the advocacy in Kentucky of the abolition of slavery. On 19 March 1835, he formed the Kentucky antislavery society, consisting of forty members, several of whom had freed their slaves. In May at New York, he made the principal speech at the meeting of the American anti-slavery society, and thenceforward he was identified with the Tap-pans, Judge William Jay, Theodore died Weld, Alvan Stewart, Thomas Morris, and other northern abolitionists, who pursued their object by constitutional methods. In June 1835, he issued a prospectus for the publication, beginning in August of an anti-slavery weekly paper, at Danville, Kentucky ;but before the time fixed for issuing the first number the era of mob violence and social persecutions, directed against the opponents of slavery, set in. This was contemporaneous with the renewed organization of revolts in Texas; the beginning of the war for breaking up the refuge for fugitive slaves, waged for years against the Florida Seminoles; and the exclusion, by connivance of the postmaster-general, of anti-slavery pa-pets from the United States mails; and it preceded, by a few months only, President Jackson's message, recommending not only the refusal of the use of the snails, but the passage of laws by congress and also by the non-slaveholding states for the suppression of "incendiary" (anti-slavery) publications. Mr. Birney found it impossible to obtain a publisher or printer; and as his own residence in Kentucky had become disagreeable and dangerous, he removed to Cincinnati, where he established his paper. His press was repeatedly destroyed by mobs; but he met all opposition with courage and succeeded finally in maintaining the freedom of the press in Cincinnati, exhibiting great personal courage, firmness, and judgment. On 22 January 1836, a snob assembled at the court-house for the purpose of destroying his property and seizing his person; the city and county authorities had notified him of their inability to protect him; he attended the meeting, obtained leave to speak, and succeeded in defeating its object. As an editor, he was distinguished by a thorough knowledge of his subject, courtesy, candor, and large attainments as a jurist and statesman. The "Philanthropist" gained rapidly an extensive circulation. Having associated with him as editor Dr. Gamaliel Bailey, he devoted most of his own time to public speaking, visiting in this work most of the cities and towns in the free states and addressing committees of legislative bodies. His object was to awaken the people of the north to the danger menacing the freedom of speech and of the press, the trial by jury, the system of free labor, and the national constitution, from the encroachments of the slave-power and the plotted annexation of new slave states in the southwest. In recognition of his prominence as an anti-slavery leader, the executive committee of the American anti-slavery society unanimously elected him, in the summer of 1837, to the office of secretary. Having accepted, he removed to New York City, 20 September. 1837. In his slew position he was the executive officer of the society, conducted its correspondence. selected and employed lecturers, directed the organization of auxiliaries, and prepared its reports. He attended the principal anti-slavery conventions. and his wise and conservative counsel had a marked influence on their action. He was faithful to the Church, while he exposed and rebuked the ecclesiastical bodies that sustained slavery; and true to the constitution, while he denounced the constructions that severed it from the principles contained in its preamble and in the declaration of independence. To secession, whether of the north or south, he was inflexibly opposed. The toleration or establishment of slavery in any district or territory belonging to the United States, and its abolition in the slave states, except under the war power, he held was not within the legal power of congress; slavery was local, and freedom national. To vote he considered the duty of every citizen. and more especially of every member of the American anti-slavery society, the constitution of which recognized the duty of using both moral and political action for the removal of slavery. In the beginning of the agitation the abolitionists voted for such anti-slavery candidates as were nominated by the leading parties; but as the issues grew. under the aggressive action of the slave power, to, include the right of petition, the freedom of speech and of the press, the trial by jury, the equality o1" all men before the law, the right of the free states to legislate for their own territory, and the right of congress to exclude slavery from the territories, the old parties ceased to nominate anti-slavery candidates, and the abolitionists were forced to make independent nominations for state officers and congress, and finally to form a national and constitutional party. Mr. Birney was their first and only choice as candidate for the presidency. During his absence in England, in 1840, and again in 1844, he was unanimously nominated by national conventions of the liberty party. At the former election he received 7,369 votes; and at the latter. 62,263. This number, it was claimed by his friends, would have been much larger if the electioneering agents of the Whig party had not circulated, three days before the election and too late for denial and exposure, a forged letter purporting to be from Mr. Birney, announcing his withdrawal from the canvass, and advising anti-slavery men to vote for Mr. Clay. This is known as "the Garland forgery." Its circulation in Ohio and New York probably gave the former state to Mr. Clay, and greatly diminished Mr. Birney's vote in the latter. In its essential doctrines the platform of the liberty party in 1840 and 1.844 was identical with those that were subsequently adopted by the free-soil and republican parties. In the summer of 1845 Mr. Birney was disabled physically by partial paralysis, caused by a fall from a horse, and from that time he withdrew from active participation in politics, though he continued his contributions to the press. In September 1839, he emancipated twenty-one slaves that belonged to his late father's estate, setting off to his co-heir $20,000, in compensation for her interest in them. In 1839 Mr. Birney lost his wife, and in the autumn of 1841 he married Miss Fitzhugh, sister of Mrs. Gerrit Smith, of New York. In 1842 he took up his residence in Bay City, Mich. In person he was of medium height, robust build, and handsome countenance. His manners were those of a polished man of the world, free from eccentricities, and marked with dignity. H had neither vices nor bad habits. As a presiding officer in a public meeting he was said to have no superior. As a public speaker he was generally calm and judicial in tone; but when under strong excitement he rose to eloquence. His chief writings were as follows: "Ten Letters on Slavery and Colonization," addressed to R. R. Gurley (the first dated 12 July 1832, the last 11 December 1833); "Six Essays on Slavery and Colonization," published in the Huntsville (Alabama) "Advocate" (May June and July 1833); "Letter on Colonization," resigning vice-presidency of Kentucky colonization society (15 July 1834) ; "Letters to the Presbyterian Church" (1834); "Addresses and Speeches" (1835);" Vindication of the Abolitionists" (1835) ; "The Philanthropist," a weekly newspaper (1836 and to September 1837) ; "Letter to Colonel Stone" (May 1836); • 'Address to Slaveholders" (October 1836) ; "Argument on Fugitive Slave Case" (1837); "Letter to F. H. Elmore," of South Carolina (1838); " Political Obligations of Abolitionists" (1839); "Report on the Duty of Political Action," for executive committee of the American anti-slavery society (May 1839); "American Churches the Bulwarks of American Slavery" (1840); "Speeches in England" (1840) ; "Letter of Acceptance "'; "Articles in Q. A. S. Magazine and Emancipator" (1837-'44) ; "Examination of the Decision of the United States Supreme Court," in the ease of Strader et al., v. Graham (1850)*His son, James, born in Danville, Kentucky, 7 June 1817, was a state senator in Michigan in 1859, and was lieutenant governor of the state and acting governor in 1861-'3. He was appointed by President Grant, in 1876, minister at the Hague, and held that office until 1882.*Another son, William, lawyer, born near Huntsville, Alabama, 28 May 1819. While pursuing his studies in Paris, in February 1848, he took an active part in the revolution, and he was appointed on public competition professor of English literature in the College at Bourges. He entered the United States national service as captain in April 1861, and rose through all the grades to the rank of brevet Major-General of volunteers, commanding a division for the last two years of the civil war. He participated in the principal battles in Virginia, and, being sent for a short time to Florida after the battle of Olustee, regained possession of the principal parts of the state and of several of the confederate strongholds. In 1863-'4, having been detailed by the war department as one of three superintendents of the organization of United States colored troops, he enlisted, mustered in, armed, equipped, drilled, and sent to the field seven regiments of those troops. In this work he opened all the slave-prisons in Baltimore, and freed their inmates, including many slaves belonging to men in the confederate armies. The result of his operations was to hasten the abolition of slavery in Maryland. He passed four years in Florida after the war, and in 1874 removed to Washington, District of Columbia, where he practiced his profession and became attorney for the District of Columbia.*The third son, Dion, physician, entered the army as lieutenant at the beginning of the civil war, rose to the rank of captain, and died in 1864 of disease contracted in the service.*The fourth son, David Bell, born in Huntsville, Alabama, 29 May 1825; died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 18 October 1864, studied law in Cincinnati, and, after engaging m business in Michigan, began the practice of law in Philadelphia in 1848. He entered the army as Lieutenant-Colonel at the beginning of the civil war, and was made colonel of the 23d Pennsylvania volunteers, which regiment he raised, principally at his own expense, in the summer of 1861. He was promoted successively to brigadier-and Major-General of volunteers, and distinguished himself in the battles of Yorktown, Williamsburg, the second battle of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. After the death of General Berry he commanded the division, receiving his commission as Major-General, 23 May 1863. He commanded the 3d corps at Gettysburg, after General Sickles was wounded, and on 23 July 1864, was given the command of the 10th corps. He died of disease contracted in the service.*A fifth son, Fitzhugh, died, in 1864, of wounds and disease, in the service with the rank of colonel.*A grandson, James Gillespie, was lieutenant and captain of cavalry, served as staff officer under Custer and Sheridan, was appointed lieutenant in the regular army at the close of the war, and died soon afterward of disease contracted in the service.

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