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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 206


This is the grave of James Birney.

Born in 1792 in Danville, Kentucky to Irish immigrants, Birney’s family was torn on the issue of slavery. He had abolitionist family members. His father also owned slaves. In fact, Birney himself was given his first slave at the age of 6. By the time he attended the College of New Jersey (today, Princeton) in 1808, he proclaimed himself personally anti-slavery but believed that property rights were more important. He returned to Kentucky after graduation and worked for Henry Clay for a bit. He then moved to Philadelphia to study law, where he stayed for the next few years. He won a seat in the Kentucky General Assembly in 1816, where he opposed attempts by the Kentucky Senate to draft a resolution to work with Ohio and Indiana for the return of runaway slaves. Seeing little political future for himself in Kentucky, he moved to Alabama, where he brought some slaves from Kentucky, bought some more, and started a cotton plantation. More than a little inconsistency in the mind of the still young Birney. He almost immediately was elected to the Alabama legislature, where he immediately brought up a bill that gave slaves the right to legal counsel unconnected to their owners in court cases. This killed his political career in that state. He finally sold his plantation and slaves after he ended up in financial troubles due to his love of playing the ponies (a true Kentuckian at heart). He soon regained his financial footing and started defending slaves in court cases while taking enough other high profile cases to become northern Alabama’s wealthiest lawyer. In 1829, he was elected mayor of Huntsville as a Whig.

Birney hated Andrew Jackson with a great passion. He also hated John C. Calhoun. And he was increasingly religious in a time of evangelism, as the Second Great Awakening swept the nation. That was a lot less of a phenomenon in the South than, say, in the Burned-Over District of upstate New York, but Birney was certainly affected by it. He hoped to find a solution to slavery. At first, that was by joining the American Colonization Society, which hoped to ship freed slaves to Africa. Still friendly with Henry Clay, who was perhaps the ACS’ greatest supporter, Birney joined the organization in 1829. He toured northern cities in 1830 to recruit professors to the University of Alabama, which had recently won a large endowment and has asked Birney to take charge of this. I don’t know how he did in professor recruitment, but he quickly loved the North and its slave-free society. Upon his return to Huntsville, he broke with Henry Clay (we don’t quite know why and it may have been a personal argument) and took a job with the ACS as a roving lecturer through the South. Through all of this, Birney still owned one slave. He finally converted to abolitionism in 1833 after reading some abolitionist tracts. He had flirted with this for years, but like a lot of moderate southerners, he couldn’t even free his own slaves, even while bemoaning slavery’s existence. This was the classic position of Thomas Jefferson and it became less tenable with each passing years. Soon these slavery moderates would be gone. Most did not follow Birney’s path and either just embraced slavery as “a positive good,” to quote Calhoun or just shut up about it. The money from cotton helped them shut up.

Birney decided to move to Cincinnati and open an abolitionist newspaper in 1835. He began working with abolitionists such as Salmon Chase, protecting slaves who had escaped to Ohio. But hated by most other prominent residents, when Birney was offered the position of corresponding secretary for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1837, he took it and moved to New York. He was pretty conservative in many other ways, hating women’s suffrage for instance. But he was a firebrand on slavery. In 1840, a tiny anti-slavery party called the Liberty Party decided to run someone for president. They chose Birney and he picked up a few votes. In 1844, with Birney now residing in Michigan, they nominated him again. This would help change the nation.

The 1844 election was going to be close and tense. Thanks to John Tyler naming Calhoun Secretary of State and deciding that the only way he would win a presidential term of his own was to adopt radical southern positions of slavery, the attempts of antebellum politicians to sweep slavery under the table were no longer possible. The core issue in the election was Texas annexation, serving as a front for the real issue of slavery expansion. Neither Martin Van Buren, the presumptive Democratic nominee, or Clay, yet again running as the Whig standard bearer, wanted to take a strong stance. But this led Democrats to instead nominate James Polk of Tennessee, ousting Van Buren in a huge upset. Polk ran on the annexation of Texas and the expansion of slavery and slave owner rights. Now the differences were stark. Birney and Clay’s falling out over a decade earlier hardly enamored the latter to the anti-slavery candidate. But the differences between the Polk and Clay were stark, even if Clay was a moderate on slavery and its expansion, not to mention a slaveowner himself. With Texas annexation the core issue and southern expansionism moving more northerners to abolitionism, this would not be a repeat of 1840. In New York, the election was very tight. Birney took 2.3% of the national vote, with Clay losing by 1.4%. While we can’t know if all of those people would have voted for Clay, virtually none of them would have voted for Polk. Moreover, Birney clearly flipped New York for Polk and that alone would have given the election to Clay. Some serious heightening of the contradictions followed.

Now, we might say that in the long run, this was worth it. Polk’s administration, the annexation of Texas, and the Mexican War all helped lead to the Civil War, which was necessary to purge the nation of its foundational sin of slavery. Well, maybe. I would argue that any strategy that ends in civil war is not a real good one, but it’s also impossible to imagine an end to chattel slavery without it. But like nearly everything else in American history and the American present, race is presented here as a black-white binary. We can’t have the full picture of the implications of all of this without considering what happened to other racial groups. And to say the least, electing Polk was a complete and unmitigated catastrophe for Mexicans living in the northern half of their nation that Polk would steal to expand slavery, as well for Native Americans. If Birney’s actions as a third party spoiler helped bring about the end of slavery, even at a high cost, they also led to the disastrous poverty and second-class citizenship Mexican-Americans would have in the United States and to the genocide against Native Americans in the Southwest. Ask the Navajos if Birney heightening the contradictions to end slavery worked out well for them. Or ask the Comanche. Or ask the people of New Mexico. Or the Cheyenne and Arapaho. What happened to these people cannot be disconnected from whatever positive actions this caused by moving us toward the Civil War. For that matter, the liberal narrative of the Civil War being a great thing because it ended slavery must also be challenged by the fact that it led to a massive intensification in the genocidal campaigns against Native Americans in the West, often led by the same military officers. Birney or Bust indeed.

Birney’s latter years were rough. In 1845, he fell off a horse and never fully recovered, having speech problems and bouts of paralysis. In 1855, he finally moved back to the east coast to be closer to his family. He ended up in a communal living arrangement with other abolitionists and died in New Jersey in 1857, determined that only a civil war would end slavery. About that he was right.

James Birney is buried in Williamsburg Cemetery, Groveland, New York, where his wife’s family was from.

If you would like this series to cover more third party candidates or antislavery radicals, you can donate here to cover the travel expenses to make this series happen. Surely James Weaver and John Hale must be buried somewhere. Previous posts in this series are compiled here.

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