Apostles of Equality
The Birneys, the Republicans, and the Civil War
Publication Year: 2011
Published by: Michigan State University Press
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One of the nation’s leading antislavery scholars and authors, Professor Dwight Lowell Dumond of the University of Michigan, rescued the papers of James Gillespie Birney in the basement of Birney’s grandson, George Birney Jennison, in Bay City, Michigan, in 1936. Without that find, the story of Birney’s...
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He was a thirty-nine-year-old political maverick from Huntsville, Alabama, named James Gillespie Birney. After a Southampton, Virginia, slave insurrection that August resulted in the death of sixty whites and more than one hundred blacks, including instigator Nat Turner, Birney determined to seek a quieter place to rear and educate...
Part 1: The Birneys
1. Rising Immigrant Tides
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Young James Birney of Cootehill, County Cavan, Ireland, may have been affected by conditions Benjamin Franklin saw on a visit to Ireland in 1771, when Birney was a four-year-old still in knee pants. The sage of the American colonies wrote his impressions: “I have lately made a Tour thro’ Ireland and Scotland...
2. Birthing Kentucky and a Birney
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After the Revolutionary War, Virginia gave big chunks of its western lands to former soldiers, but Tories also moved in from the Carolinas and Pennsylvania along Boone’s Trace and the Wilderness Road, setting the stage for long-term conflicts that persisted through the Civil War days. Kentucky County was so far from the...
3. Roots of the Conflict over Slavery
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James G. Birney’s progress from slaveholder to abolitionist would proceed much like the nation would address slavery—excruciatingly slowly and with many missteps. At the root of his personal conflict lay the inexorable facts: slaves were property according to the laws of most states, and slavery apparently was sanctioned...
4. Trapped in the Golden Circle
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The green meadows and piney woods of frontier Alabama in the early 1800s offered great profit to settlers if they owned slaves, planted cotton, and were good managers. James G. Birney qualified on the first two counts, but he failed miserably on the third. He was too sympathetic, too softhearted while successful plantation...
5. Defending the Cherokee, Launching Abolition
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The territory of Alabama was established in March 1817 on lands east of the present state of Mississippi. Just about that time James G. Birney and William Love, a fellow member of the Kentucky legislature, traveled to the territory to see if Alabama was the land of opportunity equal to their dreams. Convinced by his...
6. The Colonization Debacle
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Sending black men and women back to Africa was an idea that had been around for more than half a century before it was embraced by James G. Birney in 1832. There was a reason it had not caught on: it would involve wealthy Americans divesting themselves of their fortunes, or a substantial portion of their wealth...
7. Birney’s Epiphany
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Birney was not yet an abolitionist in the early 1830s, but recent events and his maturing attitudes had convinced him to escape the culture of slavery as soon as possible and to embrace the rising crusade against the practice. Besides the hostility his Alabama neighbors were showing toward him for his liberal...
8. Saving the South from Destruction
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Birney felt by moving back to Danville he would have a better chance to launch the antislavery crusade that was becoming his consuming obsession now that it was apparent that there was little support, either white or black, for colonization. In May 1833 he began writing a series of essays on colonization...
9. The Tar and Feathers Agenda [Includes Image Plates]
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A grim-faced delegation banged on the door of Birney’s home on Race Street in Cincinnati. Birney opened to find Mayor Samuel W. Davies, City Marshal James Saffin, and Charles Hammond, the editor of the Cincinnati Gazette, staring him down. The vicious glares and stiffly folded arms told Birney this was not...
Part 2: The Republicans
10. Lincoln’s Prophet
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Birney was “Lincoln’s Prophet”—his candidacy in 1840 forecasting the antislavery position the nation would take by electing Lincoln in 1860. In quick succession Birney had lost his father and his wife, Agatha, both of whom died in 1839, but he was no more deterred by personal problems than by almost universal political...
11. Henry Clay’s Nemesis
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James Gillespie Birney has been blamed by politicians and historians for the defeat of Henry Clay in the 1844 presidential race, a factor that perhaps more than any other led him to be castigated while he lived and ignored after his lifetime. Birney’s contribution to the progression of antislavery philosophy and voter sentiment...
12. Uncle Tom Comes Alive
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Despite the apparent futility of the effort, there was an important outcome to James G. Birney’s abolitionist activities: his battles with the mobs in Cincinnati provided some of the inspiration to Harriet Beecher Stowe to write her monumental 1852 book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mrs. Stowe’s biographer, Joan Hedrick...
13. Michigan’s “Wonderful Revolution”
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Michigan in the 1840s was an unlikely place for the start of a revolution that would shake the civilized world by ending slavery, which had persisted for two centuries in America. The state was remote and sparsely populated with scattered crude frontier settlements. In prehistoric days, groups of Paleo-Indians...
14. Flight to Eagleswood
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It was an ironic twist of history that placed one of the nation’s leading abolitionists, James G. Birney, at Perth Amboy, New Jersey, which had been the state’s leading port for the slave trade. And that irony was compounded after his death when two of radical abolitionist John Brown’s accomplices in the raid...
15. The Republican Phenomenon
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Just how did an unknown politician like Abraham Lincoln, who had won only brief terms in the Illinois legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives, attain the presidency of the United States in 1860? Lincoln was able to catch the rising tide of antislavery sentiment initiated in 1840 by Birney and the Liberty Party...
Part 3: The Civil War
16. The Birneys in Battle
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The “solid South,” which William Birney later observed had been emerging since 1824, exploded with the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860. Lincoln’s election was the signal bell for Southern states to declare outrage over the antislavery platform of the Republican Party, secede from the Union, and form...
17. The U.S. Colored Troops Tip the Balance
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Despite vicious derogation of their efforts that began during the war and has persisted in Civil War historiography, the military abolitionists played an important role in that they were willing to recruit and lead Negro troops, thus providing the Union with an extra 10 percent of manpower that may have...
18. Appomattox Sundays
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Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had fought on long after any reasonable expectation that the Confederate cause could be successful, according to historian Clifford Dowdey, who estimated 30 September 1864 at Fort Harrison near Richmond (where major generals David and William Birney had been...
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Abraham Lincoln, James G. Birney and three of his sons and a grandson, and many of their collaborators were long dead as the signs of the apocalyptic four-year Civil War still were evident on ten thousand battlefields in the devastated South at the end of Reconstruction. The final Union and Confederate death...
Appendix 1: Birney’s Writings
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Appendix 2: First Republican Platform
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Page Count: 250
Publication Year: 2011