Who is James G. Birney? Do you know? This question was asked by a newspaper in 1844 in the midst of a Presidential campaign. The newspaper answered its own question saying,
“Should he die this day, he has achieved more for the liberty and welfare of his country than all the presidents or other candidates for the presidency, that have lived since Washington died.”
That’s quite a testimony. It kind of makes me mad I never learned about this guy in school. I discovered James G. Birney in a footnote of a history book written in the 1890s. I was intrigued. Who was this guy? After doing some research I was shocked at what I found and mystified as to why he’s been left out of the telling of American History. I’m rectifying this injustice right now.
James G Birney was born on this day, February 4, 1792. He was a southern lawyer and slaveholder who, after many years of first-hand experience with the institution of slavery, became convinced that human bondage was a great evil. For this beliefs Birney was run out of town, mobbed, threatened, and denied work.
Birney was a Christian man who lovingly rebuked his fellow Christians for engaging in this horrible institution. He wrote an eye-opening book called, “The American Churches, the Bulwarks of Slavery,” in which he exposes Christian Churches of all denominations which were engaging in the slave trade. Believe it or not, Birney gives example in this work of slaves being advertised in church bulletins!
Birney wrote and spoke during a time when anti-slavery sentiments were censored with threats of violence. But his fearless and steadfast crusade for freedom helped protect the right of free speech. Birney took the anti-slavery cause into the political realm by helping start the Anti-Slavery Liberty Party; a third party which became the genesis of the Republican Party which elected Lincoln. Birney was nominated as their Presidential candidate for the 1840 election running against Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison, but Birney didn’t get any electoral votes. He was nominated again in 1843, but the results were the same as last time.
James G Birney conducted himself with honor in his crusade for freedom; so much so that he was even enemies admired him. The harshest accusation laid against him was not being loyal to the Whig Party and its Presidential hopeful Henry Clay who ran in 1840 and 44. Some bitter partisans blamed Birney for Clay’s loss. But in 1884, former Indiana Representative George W. Julian wrote the following about Birney and those who voted for him:
“Now, in the clear perspective of history, they stand vindicated against their Whig assailants, whose fevered brains and party intolerance blinded their eyes to the truth.”
James Birney wasn’t an anti-government radical. He loved his country, its constitution, and wanted justice by peaceful means. Carl Shurz in his book about Henry Clay says this about Birney:
“Obeying a high sense of duty, he sacrificed the comforts of wealth, home, and position, to the cause of universal freedom. Not as a wild enthusiast or unreasoning fanatic, but as a calm thinker, temperate in language, and firm in maintaining his conclusions. His principle conclusion was THAT SLAVERY AND FREE INSTITUTIONS COULD NOT EXIST TOGETHER.”
James G. Birney honorably combated pro slavery powers with the weapons of reason. Birney fought this battle till his dying breath in 1857 having never seen the final victory. Birney lost elections, but he ultimately won the debate. James G Birney’s son wrote a book about his dad in which he inserted this poem:
“Speak, history, who are life’s victors? Unroll thy long annals and say –
Are victors those whom the world called victors – who won the success of a day?
The martyrs or Nero? The Spartans who fell at Thermopylae’s tryst,
or the Persians and Xerxies? His judges or Socrates? Pilate or Christ?”
History has spoken. Birney was the victor. Now you know the answer to the question posed by the 1844 newspaper – Who is James G. Birney?