The New International Encyclopædia/Birney, James Gillespie
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Birney, James Gillespie
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BIRNEY, James Gillespie (1792-1857). An American reformer, leader of the conservative Abolitionists during the anti-slavery struggle. He was born in Danville, Ky., studied at Transylvania University, and graduated at Princeton in 1810. He then studied law under Alexander J. Dallas in Philadelphia, began practice in Danville in 1814, and was elected to the State Legislature two years later. In 1818 he removed to a plantation in the vicinity of Huntsville, Ala., and in the following year served in the Alabama Legislature. He resumed his law practice in Huntsville in 1823, was elected prosecuting attorney there, and soon became the most successful practitioner in northern Alabama, but turned his attention more and more to the study of the slavery question, and in 1832-33 acted as agent of the Colonization Society (q.v.) for the district embracing Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. In November, 1833, he returned to Danville, Ky., where he freed his own slaves, and devoted himself with zeal and energy to the cause of gradual emancipation, though he soon became a convert to immediatism. He organized the Kentucky Anti-Slavery Society in 1835, and in the same year planned an anti-slavery paper; but, as he was unable to find a publisher in Kentucky, he removed to Cincinnati, Ohio, where, on January 1, 1836, he issued the first number of The philanthropist. During the next few years his press was several times destroyed by mobs, and he himself was repeatedly threatened with personal violence and death; but in spite of opposition his paper rapidly attained a wide circulation and exerted a powerful influence among those who, like himself, believed in abolition, but opposed the radicalism of Garrison and his followers. (See Garrison, William Lloyd.) Both as an editor and as a speaker, though firm and unflinching in his advocacy of what he believed to be right, he upheld the Constitution, opposed all violence and fanaticism, and was uniformly courteous, tolerant, and fair. He spent much of his time in making speeches throughout the North, especially before the legislatures of the various States, and in 1837 was elected secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In this capacity he conducted the correspondence of the Society, employed its lecturers, and prepared its reports; and, in addition, he continued to make frequent addresses before legislatures and large public assemblies. He soon came to be regarded everywhere as the leader of the ‘Constitutional’ Abolitionists; that is, of the Abolitionists who opposed all revolutionary measures, fought against secession, and endeavored to effect their desired reforms through the ordinary machinery of government; and both in 1840 and in 1844 he was the unanimous candidate of the Liberty Party (q.v.) for the Presidency, receiving 7069 votes in the first election and 62,263 in the second. He was disabled by a fall from his horse in 1845, and passed the last twelve years of his life in retirement as an invalid, first in Bay City, Mich., and afterwards in Eagleswood, N. J. Besides numerous brief articles for the press, his chief writings were his Letter on Colonization (1834); American Churches the Bulwarks of American Slavery (1840); Speeches in England (1840); and Examination of the Decision of the United States Supreme Court in the Case of Strader et al. vs. Graham (1850). Consult the excellent biography by his son, William Birney, James G. Birney and His Times (New York, 1890).