James Gillespie Birney was born in Danville, Kentucky on February 4, 1792 to an aristocratic family who did own slaves. His mother passed away when he was three so he and his younger sister were raised by his father’s sister. While his father was for the emancipation of slaves and worked for amending the Kentucky constitution to do so, he felt until they did, one had to accept slavery and treat their own slaves as humanely as possible. His aunt went further in her opposition. She herself would not own a slave and insisted that the slaves of her brother that performed work for her be paid.
James attended Transylvania University, then Princeton University. After studying law in Philadelphia, he returned to Danville in 1814 to begin his practice. In 1816, he married Agatha McDowell. The following year, Agatha gave birth to their first child, a son, James, Jr.
James G. Birney from Letters of James Gillespie Birney, 1831-1857 Cincinnati History Library and Archives
Cincinnati Museum Center
In 1816, Birney was elected to the state legislature. Serving in the state legislature as well was William Love who talked Birney into moving to the territory of Alabama, the new frontier. Birney purchased land for a plantation and became involved in politics as the territory went from being a territory to a state. In 1819, he was elected to the General Assembly of Alabama. However, not being a supporter of Andrew Jackson caused him to lose re-election. Birney was not making a success of his plantation and therefore moved to Huntsville, Alabama to practice law in 1823. He sold his plantation and transferred all except the domestic slaves, to William Love. While in Huntsville, he joined the American Colonization Society. Not finding much success in promoting the cause in Alabama, Birney decided to return his family to Kentucky in 1833.
Back in Kentucky Birney came to believe that abolition not colonization was the answer to slavery. Birney resigned from the Colonization Society in 1834. That same year he freed his own slaves. Birney played a major role in establishing the Kentucky Anti-slavery Society as an auxiliary to the American Anti-slavery Society in 1835. He served as a delegate from Kentucky to the American Anti-slavery Society’s anniversary meeting in New York in 1835. On his way to that meeting he became a corresponding member of the Ohio auxiliary which was being formed in Putnam. He presented a prospectus for publishing a newspaper to aid the cause. The Ohio Anti-slavery Society agreed to aid in the circulation of the paper. However, when Birney returned from the American Anti-slavery Society’s meeting, he encountered opposition in Danville to his publishing the newspaper. Birney decided it was better to publish in a free state and so moved his family to Cincinnati. He was met with opposition in Cincinnati and fearing for his family, which now numbered five children, he established the newspaper in New Richmond, Ohio. The first issue of The Philanthropist was issued on January 1, 1836. Publication of the newspaper in New Richmond, which was personally inconvenient for Birney, did not quell the opposition to the publication of the newspaper in Cincinnati. Birney came to see the opposition as a challenge. In April publication of the newspaper was moved to Cincinnati. In May, the newspaper became an organ of the Ohio Anti-slavery Society. While initially there was no problem in Cincinnati, by July things changed. On July 12th, the offices of the printer of the paper were attacked. Birney was threatened. A committee of Cincinnatians was formed to try to force the closure of the newspaper. Both Birney and the Executive Committee of the Ohio Anti-slavery Society refused to cease publishing, citing freedom of the press. On the 30th of July, the offices of the printer were again attacked and the press destroyed. However, this did not stop them from printing the next week’s paper as the rioters had not destroyed the layout in the ransacking. However, it was not until Oct. that another issue was published.
The year 1837 was also a trying year for Birney in the anti-slavery cause. He and his wife had unknowingly hired a servant girl, Matilda, who turned out to be a fugitive slave. In March of 1837, when the authorities came for her, he surrendered her. He then hired Salmon P. Chase to defend her. He argued the Fugitive Slave Law should have no jurisdiction in a state formed from the Northwest Territory which had forbidden slavery and also that Matilda had not fled from a slavery state but had been brought to Ohio by her master and then escaped. The arguments were of no avail, Matilda was returned to her master. Birney was then brought up on charges of harboring a fugitive slave. Chase defended him by saying that Matilda had been free once her master brought her to a free state and therefore he was not harboring a fugitive. The judge determined that Birney was guilty and fined him. Chase appealed the case to the Ohio Supreme Court which found Birney not guilty but not for the reason Chase had argued. Rather, the judges found him not guilty because they determined that her color alone would not have given Birney reason to assume she was a slave since she was in a free state.
In Spring of 1837, Birney was offered the position of Corresponding Secretary of the American Anti-slavery Society. Birney accepted and moved his family to New York later that year. Agatha died in 1839. He married Elizabeth Fitzhugh in 1841. After his marriage he moved to Michigan primarily for financial reasons. He ran unsuccessfully for president of the United States on an anti-slavery platform in 1840 and 1844 as the Liberty Party’s candidate. Around 1853 Birney and his wife moved from Michigan to New Jersey where he died in 1857.
To learn more about James G. Birney, consult the following
The American Churches, the Bulwarks of American Slavery
By James G. Birney
R.B. Pamphlets 326 B619ac
Birney denounces the denominations whose ministers had publicly spoken out against abolitionists. View catalog recordRequest slip
Correspondence between the Hon. F. H. Elmore, One of the South Carolina Delegation in Congress, and James G. Birney, One of the Secretaries of the American Anti-slavery Society
R.B. Pamphlets 326 B619
Elmore was part of a committee formed by the House of Representatives to gather information on the anti-slavery associations. Birney felt publication of the correspondence between them would help constituents of the representatives of Congress have a better understanding of the associations. View catalog recordRequest slip
Dictionary of American Biography
General q920.073 D554
See Vol. 1, pt. 2, pages 291-291. Request slip
Economic Aspects of the Presidential Election of 1844
By Ruth Carol Brill
Mss VF 3449 Birney was the Liberal Party’s candidate. Request slip
Forgotten Leader [James G. Birney]: A Paper Read at the Cincinnati Literary Club
By E. Jay Wohlgemuth
Mss VF 2597 Request slip
James G. Birney's Anti-Slavery Activities
By Betty Fladeland in the Bulletin of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, Vol. 9, No. 4. October 1951, pages 250‑265.
General 906 H673B View article (PDF)
Letter of Dr. William E. Channing to James G. Birney
By Dr. William E. Channing
R.B. Pamphlets 326 C458b Written to Birney following the attack upon the printing office of The Philanthropist, Channing expresses his "sympathy and admiration" for Birney and encourages him to not give up the cause. View catalog recordRequest slip
Liberty Party, 1840: Thomas Earle
Pamphlets 324.23 L695 Published in order to clear up any confusion as to who the vice-presidential candidate was in 1840 on the Liberty Party ticket, it contains the correspondence between Earle and Birney and members of the National Convention of Friends of Immediate Emancipation requesting Earle to become the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket with Birney. View catalog recordRequest slip
Scrapbook of Clippings, 1844-1854, from Various Papers, Cincinnati and Elsewhere
By Thomas Foraker
Mss fXF6923 Some of the clippings concern Birney. Request slip
The Sinfulness of Slaveholding in All Circumstances: Tested by Reason and Scripture
By James G. Birney
R.B. Pamphlets 326 B619s Request slip
Sketch of the Life of James G. Birney
By William Birney
Pamphlets B B619b Request slip
Speech of Salmon P. Chase in the Case of the Colored Woman, Matilda: Who Was Brought before the Court of Common Pleas of Hamilton County, Ohio, by Writ of Habeas Corpus, March 11, 1837
By Salmon P. Chase
R.B. Pamphlets 326.973 C487m Request slip
The Negro in Cincinnati, 1802-1841
By Richard W. Pih
Thesis f301.451 P634, 1968
Birney’s experience with The Philanthropist and the fugitive slave case are covered in this thesis. View catalog recordRequest slip
Sources Used for Biographical Sketch:
Dictionary of American Biography, General 920.073 qD554 v. 1, pt. 2, pp. 291-294, Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center.
Fladeland, Betty. James Gillespie Birney: Slaveholder to Abolitionist, General B B619F, Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center.
Pih, Richard W. The Negro in Cincinnati, 1802-1841, Thesis 301.451 fP364, Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center.