James G. Birney was a Saginaw resident, living at the Webster House, when he accepted the Liberty Party’s nomination for President of the United States.
While the Liberty Party was never a major contender, its ticket did draw enough votes to influence the Presidential election in 1844. Twenty years before the Civil War, it strongly urged the abolition of slavery. Birney’s views on abolition—and other controversial issues of the day—were spelled out in a letter from Saginaw. Who was James Birney and how did his life, beliefs and actions affect the history of the United States?
James Gillespie Birney was born February 4, 1792, in Danville, Kentucky. Nothing in the circumstances of his family or his early years suggested that this was an individual who would advocate change of the most radical nature. Birney was the only son of James Birney, who came from Ireland to the United States and did well, prospering and owning slaves. Famed senator Henry Clay was a close friend.
Young James was educated at Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, and at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). He became a lawyer and in 1816, married Agatha McDowell, daughter of a U. S. District Judge and niece of the Governor of Kentucky. They had five sons and a daughter.
Elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives, Birney introduced laws that would allow the legislature to emancipate slaves under certain circumstances and to prohibit the introduction of slaves into the state for sale. Birney was not calling for outright abolition. He still owned slaves himself but he was definitely opposed to the slave trade. He introduced similar legislation when the family moved to Alabama.
1826 marked a turning point in his life: he began to see the whole practice of slavery as a moral evil. He supported a movement to return American slaves to a colony in Africa (Liberia). Deciding that Kentucky was the best spot to take a stand, he returned to his hometown of Danville, formed the Kentucky Anti-Slavery Society, and began writing pamphlets and essays. He also delivered speeches throughout the United States.
It was not a popular stand. Driven from Kentucky to Ohio in 1836, he established an anti-slavery newspaper, The Philanthropist. Threats of mob violence followed him from Kentucky to Ohio but he was never actually harmed.
Two events brought him national renown. In 1838, he was indicted for harboring an escaped slave, a young woman named Mathilda who took refuge in the Birney house. In 1839, after the death of his father, he freed 21 slaves, a gesture that cost him $21,000 but won him the 1840 nomination of the Liberty Party.
He received only 7069 votes that year but he was widely admired and became an instant celebrity when he moved to Saginaw in 1841 to take over family business interests. The Saginaw Bay Land Company owned much of the area called Lower Saginaw (now Bay City).
In 1842, he was informed that he would be the nominee of the Liberty Party again in 1844. His letter of acceptance was published in the New York Herald on March 22, 1842. It is a document that should be part of every comprehensive book on American history. Birney was decades ahead of his time. He not only eloquently advocated the abolition of slavery, he also spelled out the other glaring injustices he saw around him.
He condemned the blatant takeover of land from Mexico and supported Toussaint’s efforts to free Haiti from a tyranny the United States had ignored.
He excoriated the newspapers of his day, saying, “our press is free to persecute what is good, run with what is evil, minister to the basest passions of the high rabble and the low rabble and thereby put money in its pockets.”
He deplored the persecution of the Mormons, who he said had been “driven from their homes, despoiled of their property and hunted down like wild beasts.”
He roundly condemned the abuse of Native Americans, saying, ”we have so long practiced injustice, adding to it hypocracy, in the treatment of the colored race, both Negroes and Indians, that we begin to regard injustice as…the chief element in our government.”
He called our dealings with South American countries “instances of brute force.”
He even took on the churches that “weep over the miseries of the heathen abroad and mock at the miseries of the heathen of their own manufacture at home.”
He warned of dire consequences if there wasn’t an immediate shift to justice.
In the 1844 election, Birney pulled enough votes from his father’s friend Henry Clay to elect James Polk—who turned out to be a one-term President. If Birney had run again in 1848, the whole course of American history could have been changed. He might have defeated Zachary Taylor who died and left the government in the inept hands of Millard Fillmore. It was not to be. In the summer of 1845, while out riding, Birney was thrown from his horse and was paralyzed for the rest of his life.
James Birney died in 1857, three years before the Civil War he had so terribly predicted.
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