Person:James Gillespie Birney (b1792)

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James Gillespie Birney (b1792)

From AlabamaMosaic: Huntsville-Madision County Public Library
 Planter, Attorney, Abolitionist, Politician, President of Huntsville, 1829-1830

Born:February 4, 1792, Danville, KY
Died:November 25, 1857, Eagleswook, New Jersey
Buried:Williamsburg Cemetery, Groveland, NY
Father of:David B. Birney
Father of:James Gillespie Birney (b1817)
Father of:William Birney


•  He "born into a wealthy Irish family of slaveholders, and was raised to believe human bondage was not only acceptable, but represented the epitome of success for a wealthy man. Such was the perspective under which James was raised, who as an adult, would be a slaveholder. However, his consciousness as a man of Christian faith awaken him to his sin, and from that point on he dedicated the balance of his life crusading against this injustice to humanity." - Bay-Journal

•  He ran for President Of the United States in 1840 and 1844 as a member of the Abolitionist Liberty Party. - AlabamaMosaic: Huntsville-Madision County Public Library

•  "helped push through the first Sunday Blue Laws, which were not popular but did reflect the religious revivals at the time." - AlabamaMosaic: Huntsville-Madision County Public Library

•  "Together with Dr. Thomas Fearn and Dr. John Allan, he formed the Madison County Colonization Society to encourage the return of emancipated slaves to Africa." - AlabamaMosaic: Huntsville-Madision County Public Library

•  The title of "President of Huntsville" was used instead of "mayor" in the early years.

•  "BIRNEY, JAMES GILLESPIE, abolitionist, was born at Danville, Ky., February 4, 1792, and died at Eagleswood, N. J., November 25, 1857; son of James and Martha (Read) Birney, the former born near Cootehill, County Cavan, Ireland, who in 1783 emigrated to America when a lad of sixteen, spent several years in Philadelphia, finally locating in Danville, Ky., where he became a most successful banker and merchant; grandson of John and Letitia (Wilcox) Read, the former a native of Londonderry, Ireland, who emigrated to America as early as 1779, as a consequence of the discovery of some political intrigue of his against the British government, and who settled near Danville, Ky., where he built a fort and became one of the leading men of that section. Mr. Birney received his early education under the direction of his father, his mother having died when he was only three years of age; at the age of eleven, was sent to Transylvania University, Lexington, where he remained until the fall of 1806, at that date returning to Danville and entering the seminary conducted by Dr. James Priestly. He remained in Danville for two years; entered the college of New Jersey, now Princeton university, where he graduated with second honors, A. B., 1810; returned home for a few months; and later was received as a student in the law office of Alexander J. Dallas, a celebrated lawyer and the United States district attorney of Philadelphia, where he remained for three and a half years. He began the practice of law in Danville, May, 1814, deriving his income from settling claims and as attorney for the Danville bank. In August 1816, he was elected a member of the Kentucky house of representatives. At the end of the session he decided to move with his family to Alabama, having visited that State and having bought a plantation in Madison County, near Triana and on the Tennessee River, and within two hours' ride of Huntsville. Soon after he reached the territory the Constitutional convention convened in 1819, and he was instrumental in causing the incorporation of provisions in the constitution which empowered the general assembly to free slaves by purchase, forbidding the bringing of slaves into the State for sale, and in securing more humane treatment for slaves. He was one of the representatives from Madison County in the first State legislature, 1819. By his opposition to the adoption of a joint resolution incident to the visit of Gen. Andrew Jackson to Alabama, his promising political career in this State was closed. In 1823, having proved unsuccessful as a planter, he took up his residence in Huntsville, and began the practice of law. The general assembly in 1823 elected him as solicitor for the fifth circuit, an office he held until 1826, when he resigned and entered into partnership with Arthur F. Hopkins. He served as mayor of Huntsville for two terms; was a trustee of the Greene academy, Huntsville; in 1823, organized the Huntsville library company, and in 1826 became attorney or legal protector of the Cherokee nation, which at that time occupied the northeastern part of the State; about the same date becoming interested in the American colonization society; and was president elector on the Whig, or Adams and Rush, ticket. In the summer of 1830 he was unanimously requested by the board of trustees of the University of Alabama to visit the Atlantic States in order to select a president and four professors for the new institution. He accepted the commission, and as soon as this was known, his co-trustees of the Huntsville female seminary requested him to act for them in the selection of teachers. He spent some time in the North, extending his trip to Massachusetts and succeeding in securing many well known educators, among these. Rev. Dr. Alva Woods, as president, and Henry Tutwiler, professor for the university. On August 23, 1832, he accepted a commission as agent of the American colonization society for the southwestern district and about November 15, of that year he returned with his family to his native county in Kentucky and purchased a farm near Danville. Hardly had he reached his new home when he began the organization of a State society for emancipation, but public opinion, influenced by Henry Clay, had changed during his absence and he found few supporters. He freed his slaves in 1834, and the following year succeeded in establishing an anti-slavery society in Kentucky and desired to publish his paper "The Philanthropist," in Danville, but the citizens being so violently opposed he removed to Cincinnati, where the first issue appeared January 1, 1836. In 1837, he was appointed secretary of the American anti-slavery society and this necessitated his removal to New York, where he became the real leader of the "constitutional" abolitionists. In 1840 and 1844 he was abolition nominee for president on the Liberty party ticket, in the first instance receiving 7,369 votes and in the second 62,263. He purchased a large tract of land on the Saginaw River, Mich., 1840, where he removed in 1844 and where in 1845, he suffered an unfortunate accident resulting in paralysis and causing his withdrawal from public life. He removed to Eagleswood, near Perth Amboy, about 1853, and made this his home until his death in 1857. He was a Presbyterian and a Mason. Author: "Ten letters on slavery and colonization," 1832-33; "Six essays on slavery and colonization," 1833; "Letter on colonization," 1834; "Letter to the Presbyterian church," 1834; "Addresses and speeches," 1835; "Vindication of the abolitionists," 1835; "Letter to Colonel Stone," 1836; "Address to slaveholders," 1836; "Argument on fugitive slave case," 1837; "Letter to F. H. Elmore," 1838; "Report on the duty of political action," 1839; "Political obligations of abolitionists," 1839; "American churches the bulwarks of American slavery," 1840; "Speeches in England," 1840; "Examination of the decision of the United States supreme court in the case of Strader et al v. Graham," 1850; and many newspaper and magazine articles. Married: (1) February 1, 1816, to Agatha, daughter of Judge William and Mary (McClung) McDonnell, the former United States district judge, the latter, a niece of George Madison, governor of Kentucky, and of Bishop Madison of Virginia; (2) November 1841, to Elizabeth Fitzhugh. Children: 1. James, teacher at Miami university, 1837-38; lawyer, Republican, senator in Michigan legislature, 1858, lieutenant-governor, 1860, circuit judge, editor of the "Bay City Chronicle," U. S. minister at the Hague, m. at New Haven, Conn., to Miss Moulton, step-daughter of Nathaniel Bacon, of that city; 2. William, lawyer, anti-slavery lecturer, professor of the English language in the University of France, 1848, captain, later brevetted major-general, U. S. volunteers, War of Secession, founder and editor of "The Register," collaborator in Waiters' history of the church, for the first two centuries of the Christian era, author of "James G. Birney and his times, the genesis of the Republican party," 1890; 3. Dion, physician, captain U. S. volunteers, War of Secession, d. 1862; 4. David Bell, lawyer and publisher, recruited the 23rd Pennsylvania volunteer regiment, appointed lieutenant-colonel, brigadier and major general, d. 1864; 5. George, d. in early manhood; 6. Florence, m. Charles Jemison, of Bay City, Mich.; 7. Fitzhugh, major U. S. volunteers. War of Secession, d. 1863. Last residence: Eagleswood, N. J." - Alabama Biography

•  "James G. Birney came to Madison in 1817, when about 27 years old. He was of Irish parentage, and his father was a wealthy merchant in Kentucky. He occupied himself with planting, but, failing, he began the practice of law in Huntsville. He represented the county in the first legislature, but was once or twice afterwards defeated. About the year 1827 he was elected solicitor, and held the office three or four years, when he became the law partner of Hon. A. F. Hopkins. The anti-slavery movement enlisted his sympathy at an early day, and he became an agent for the colonization society. During the session of the legislature at Tuskaloosa in 1834- 5 he addressed a meeting on the subject, but it was broken up in a tumult. He soon after sold his slaves, and removed to the North, where ho became an abolition agitator. In 1840 he was the nominee of the abolitionists for president of the United States, and again in 1844. In the first instance he received over 7000 votes; in the latter over 40,000. He died in Saginaw, Michigan, a short time before the war. In appearance he was short and stout, with handsome and expressive features, and polished manners. His mind was of a high order, and his capacity as a writer and speaker was considerable. He married a daughter of Judge McDowell of Kentucky, and two of his sons-natives of Madison-were brigadier generals in the federal army during the war. His sister was the mother of Hon. Thomas F. and Gen. Humphrey Marshall of Kentucky." - Brewer's Alabama History

•  "He purchased a plantation in Madison County beside the Tennessee River near Triana, then a two hours' ride from Huntsville." - Alabama Past Leaders

•  An in-depth view of any person's life would reveal some shadows and inconsistencies. True here with Birney. He had a gambling problem. He was not a successful planter. His side rarely won politically. While known for his abolitionist activity lather in life, he held several slaves in his youth and sold them (rather than freed them) when he no longer needed them for his plantation. He split with the American Anti-Slavery Society when an opposing faction wanted to involve women in the effort. But, is not to say that his messages and commitment to Anti-Slavery were compromised.

Related Links:
•  Bay-Journal - By Marvin Kusmierz, July 2002 (Updated Feb., 2010)
•  Alabama Biography - Bio from History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography, Volume 3 by Thomas McAdory Owen, Marie Bankhead Owen, 1921, p. 152-55
•  Alabama Past Leaders - by Henry S. and Marsha Kass Marks, 1982, p. 35-36.
• - Page owned by bagga4 and can be viewed only with paid membership.
• List - A list of the archived digitized texts of Birney
•  Brewer's Alabama History - Bio from Alabama, her history, resources, war record, and public men: from 1540 to 1872, by Willis Brewer, 1872, p. 351.
• Bio - Bio and links
•  Wikipedia: Bio - Bio
•  Flickr - Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll photo taken by King Kong 911 on October 18, 2009
•  AlabamaMosaic: Huntsville-Madision County Public Library - Photo with caption
• Book - A Digitized Book Birney Authored
• Video - A poorly produced video, however there are nice graphics here.
•  City of Huntsville - List of City Presidents and Mayors

The Following Pages Link to this Page:
•  David B. Birney
•  James Gillespie Birney (b1817)
•  William Birney

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