Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

JAMES GILLESPIE BIRNEY
Chapter 23

Last of the Southern exiles from point of time, but first in service to the antislavery cause, was James Gillespie Birney.1 His father and his mother's father had come to America from Ireland only a few years before James was born in Danville, Kentucky, in 1792. James was only a few weeks old when David Rice, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Danville, delivered his philippic against slavery in the first constitutional convention of the state.2 He died three years before another of Kentucky's sons, Abraham Lincoln, was elected to the presidency of the Republic. His years of accountability, therefore, covered the rise of the cotton kingdom, the slave power's bid for supremacy in the nation, and the rise of that political party which guided the nation through secession and war.

Birney was a cultivated man of the world, trained in the law and experienced in public affairs, when he discussed slavery with Theodore Weld and the Reverend John Allan at Huntsville, Alabama, in June, 1832.3 He had studied law under Alexander J. Dallas of Philadelphia; was the son-in-law of William McDowell, United States district judge for Kentucky; and was the law partner of Arthur F. Hopkins, later United States senator from Alabama. He had served in the legislature of Kentucky and in the first general assembly of Alabama, and had taken a leading part in establishing the University of Alabama. He had been a slaveholding planter, a trustee of Centre College, mayor of Huntsville, and one of the most courageous prosecuting attorneys in the Southwest. He was opposed to slavery, determined to move North in order to rear and educate his sons in the free states, and deeply shocked at the studied defense of slavery in the South.

The summer of 1832 was the time of decision for Birney. Ralph R. Gurley of the American Colonization Society offered him the permanent agency for the fifth district, comprising Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Theodore Weld, on his western trip for the newly organized Society for Promoting Manual Labor in Literary Institutions, urged him to accept the appointment. He gave up his legal practice, made a study of the colonization society's operations, and entered upon his agency in September, 1832.4 No man ever knew the deep South better, nor the evils of slavery, and the colonization movement never had a more able solicitor. There was something almost tragic about his experience-a man of fine legal mind and warm humanity lecturing to small church groups, collecting piddling amounts for the cause, working diligently to send to Africa about as many free Negroes as there were slaves on one large plantation, and in the end receiving only abuse from his own people.

Birney wrote a series of articles for the newspapers. He tried to convince the people, perhaps even himself, that colonization was a benevolent enterprise and that the standard arguments in its behalf were valid. Removal to Africa would greatly enhance the opportunities of the free Negroes, promote the redemption of Africa for Christianity, and remove from the South a disturbing ele

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