1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Birney, James Gillespie
BIRNEY, JAMES GILLESPIE (1792–1857), American reformer, leader of the conservative abolitionists in the United States from about 1835 to 1845, was born in Danville, Kentucky, of a family of wealth and influence, on the 4th of February 1792. He graduated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1810. In 1814, after a course of legal study, he began the practice of the law at Danville. He entered immediately, as a Democrat, into Kentucky politics, and political ambition caused his removal in 1818 to northern Alabama, near Huntsville. There was at that time in the south-west much anti-slavery sentiment. Birney’s father was among those who advocated a “free state” constitution for Kentucky, and the home environment of the boy had thus fostered a questioning attitude towards slavery, though later he was himself a slave-holder. In the general assembly of Kentucky in 1816, and in that of Alabama in 1819, he opposed inter-state rendition of fugitive slaves and championed liberal slave-laws. His career as a lawyer in Alabama was exceptionally brilliant; but his political career was abruptly wrecked by his opposition in 1819 to Andrew Jackson, whose friends controlled the state. His tariff and anti-slavery views, moreover, carried him more and more away from the Democratic party and toward the Whigs.
About 1826 he began to show an active interest in the American Colonization Society, and in 1832–1833 served as its agent in the south-west. In 1833 he returned to Danville, and devoted himself wholly to the anti-slavery cause. He freed his own slaves in 1834. Convinced that gradual emancipation would merely stimulate the inter-state slave trade, and that the dangers of a mixed labour system were greater than those of emancipation in mass, he formally repudiated colonization in 1834; moreover, gradualism had become for him an unjustifiable compromise in a matter of religion and justice. At this time also he abandoned the Whig party. He delivered anti-slavery addresses in the North, accepted the vice-presidency of the American Anti-Slavery Society and announced his intention to establish an anti-slavery journal at Danville (1835). For this he was ostracized from Kentucky society; his anti-slavery journals were withheld in the mails; he could not secure a public hall or a printer. In these circumstances, he removed to Cincinnati, Ohio, and there, in January 1836, founded the Philanthropist, which, in spite of rancorous opposition, became of great influence in the north-west. Birney soon relinquished its active control in order to serve the Anti-Slavery Society as secretary and as a lecturer. He favoured immediatism, but he differed sharply from the Garrisonian abolitionists, who abhorred the federal Constitution and favoured secession. He always wrote, spoke and laboured for the permanent safety of the Union. The assaults of the South in defence of slavery upon free speech, free press, the right of petition and trial by jury, he pronounced “exorbitant claims . . . on the liberties of the free states”; the contest had become, he said, “one not alone of freedom for the blacks but of freedom for the whites.” Twenty-three years before William H. Seward characterized as an “irrepressible conflict” the antagonism between freedom and slavery, Birney proclaimed: “There will be no cessation of conflict until slavery shall be exterminated or liberty destroyed”—“liberty and slavery cannot both live in juxtaposition” (1835). The ends being political, so also, thought Birney, must be the means; as parties in the south were fusing, he laboured to re-align parties in the north, and advocated the formation of an independent anti-slavery party. After the separation of the Garrisonian and the political abolitionists in 1840 the new party was formed, and in 1840, and again in 1844, as the Liberty party (q.v.), it made Birney its candidate for the presidency. In 1840 he received 7069 votes; in 1844, 62,263. A fall from his horse in 1843 made him a hopeless invalid, and completely removed him from public life. He died at Perth Amboy, New Jersey, on the 25th of November 1857.
Two of Birney’s sons, William Birney (1810–1907) and David Bell Birney (1825–1864), were prominent as officers on the Federal side during the Civil War in America.
See James G. Birney and His Times (New York, 1890), by his son, William Birney; and his principal writings: On the Sin of Holding Slaves (1834). Letter on Colonization (1834), Vindication of Abolitionists (1835), American Churches the Bulwark of American Slavery (1840, 3rd ed. 1885); Speeches in England (1840); and Case of Strader et al. v. Graham (1852).