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Aug 3, 2018

James Birney: How a Southern Slave Owner Converted to Abolitionism

Smith discusses the interesting case of James Birney, who freed his slaves and became a prominent abolitionist.

James Birney was born in Kentucky to a prosperous slaveholding family. When he moved to Alabama as a young man to combine his successful career as an attorney with that of plantation owner (1818), he added to his stock of household slaves and came to own 43 slaves altogether. He later freed all his slaves and compensated them for their past coerced labor.

Birney was one of most influential members of the abolitionist crusade. He was twice nominated (in 1840 and 1844) as the presidential candidate of the Liberty Party, and he was in high demand as a speaker. Abolitionists who had been former slave owners were extremely rare, and Birney provided a view from the inside, so to speak, and confirmed some of the stories about brutal slave owners. He denied that brutality was found in all owners, however; many were civilized men who were genuinely concerned about their slaves and treated them humanely. But slavery, he insisted, corrupted the morals of both owners and owned, and when a bad man became an owner of human beings, he invariably became worse and could take pleasure in inflicting sadistic pain on his slaves.

Birney has not received the attention he deserves from historians. To my knowledge, only one book-length biography has been published in modern times: James Gillespie Birney: Slaveholder to Abolitionist, by Betty Fladeland, published in 1955 by Cornell University Press. This contrasts sharply with the attention paid to William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and other better known abolitionists.

Birney was probably the most important adversary of Garrison, Phillips, and other anti-political abolitionists. He firmly believed that voting and other political activities were essential to the abolition of slavery, and he played a major role in the formation of Liberty Party in 1840. Garrison obviously did not like Birney, judging from his critical comments in the Liberator. Even some of Birney’s supporters thought he was ineffective as a political campaigner; his talks, they complained, sounded more like sermons than political speeches.

Given the many essays I have devoted to the anti-political contingent of the abolitionists, it is only fair that I also discuss the activities and arguments of the pro-political side. This is the first of several essays that discusses James Birney and his role in the abolitionist crusade.

In a letter to William Lloyd Garrison (March 22, 1837), the Christian anarchist John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the utopian Oneida Community in New York, expressed the close relationship between defending Indians and working for the abolition of slavery. Noyes stated that he had subscribed his name “to an instrument similar to the Declaration of ’76, renouncing all allegiance to the government of the United States, and asserting the title of Jesus Christ to the throne of the world….” Noyes continued:

When I wish to form a conception of the government of the United States (using a personified representation), I picture to myself a bloated, swaggering libertine, trampling on the Bible—its own Constitution—its treaties with the Indians—the petitions of its citizens: with one hand whipping a negro tied to a liberty-pole, and with the other dashing an emaciated Indian to the ground. On the one side stand the despots of Europe, and mocking at the boasted liberty of their neighbor; on the other hand stands the Devil, saying, “Esto perpetua.” In view of such a representation, the question urges itself upon me—What have I, as a Christian, to do with such a villain?” I live on the territory which he claims—under the protection, to some extent, which he promulgates. Must I therefore profess to be his friend? God forbid!

Although Noyes influenced Garrison, he did not similarly influence Birney. For one thing, Birney was no anarchist; on the contrary he sought various local and state political offices during his career. For example, in 1829 Birney was elected mayor of Huntsville, Alabama; and he was the presidential candidate of the Liberty Party in 1840 and 1844.  But Birney shared the outrage of most abolitionists with how Indians were treated by the American government.

In 1826 Birney became legal counsel for the Cherokee Indians in Northern Alabama and Georgia. The Cherokees were civilized by contemporary Southern standards: some were highly educated and some even owned slaves. Whites wanted Indian lands that were supposedly protected by treaties (especially after gold was discovered), and the Cherokees refused to vacate their land voluntarily. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Cherokees, but President Jackson thumbed his nose at the decision. The result was the notorious Trail of Tears, during which thousands of Indians died during their forced march to west of the Mississippi.

A dedicated Whig at this time, Birney also worked for typical Whig causes, including public schooling and prohibition. In fact, Mayor Birney brought about prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages in Huntsville. This was a topic that he knew something about. Birney had been a heavy drinker himself, being suspended twice from Princeton for indulging in the vice. And, like many reformed sinners, Birney thought it would be a good idea to coerce others to the path of virtue that he had discovered without coercion.

As I explained in some previous essays, the Whig passion for moral reform had good and bad features from a libertarian perspective. Their belief in legal prohibition was one of the bad features, but it was nearly universal among abolitionists. As Reinhard O. Johnson noted in The Liberty Party 1840-1848 (Louisiana State University Press, 2009, p. 61), “Temperance was strong among all elements of the American antislavery movement, and it became almost a test of Liberty Party membership in many states.” Johnson continued:

The temperance strain was present everywhere. Few Liberty newspapers even accepted advertisements from hotels or eating establishments that were not temperance houses, and hardly anyone ever objected to the use of the Liberty Party for temperance purposes. Virtually all Liberty leaders seem to have been temperance persons during these years, and few Liberty supporters drank alcoholic beverages. The Liberty Party sought, and sometimes received, the endorsement of temperance organizations on the basis of temperance, not antislavery.

Birney’s desire to obtain justice for Indians and slaves was certainly admirable; an early biography of Birney (by an abolitionist who knew him) stated that his pro-Indian beliefs came first in time, and that this concern then precipitated his concern for slaves. This seems an oversimplification, however. To say that Birney’s interest in Indians preceded his interest in antislavery does not mean that the former caused the latter. In fact, Birney had been interested in arguments against slavery for a long time. His mother seemed mildly antislavery, given that she insisted on paying wages to slaves who had been given to her as gifts; and his father, though a slave owner, did not discourage his son from learning about antislavery arguments. Moreover, during his time at Princeton, Birney heard a good deal of antislavery rhetoric from both professors and fellow students. If anything prevented Birney from openly embracing antislavery views at this time, it was probably public pressure that would have interfered with his pursuit of the good life in Kentucky. Yet, after Birney moved from Kentucky to Huntsville, Alabama, to establish a plantation of his own, he purchased additional slaves to do the field work with no apparent damage to his conscience.

If there was a common element in Birney’s interest in moral reform, it was undoubtedly his religious conversion to a type of Presbyterianism that was infused with the revivalist spirit begun in upstate New York by Charles Finney and other evangelical preachers. According to Birney’s new religious convictions, even the individual could bring about significant moral reform, so it was not necessary to wait on the actions of a state legislature to abolish slavery, or at least to mitigate its harmful effects. It was during the summer of 1826, shortly after his conversion, that Finney happened to read the African Repository and Colonial Journal, published by the American Colonization Society. Here he found his first plan to direct his considerable energy to the antislavery crusade.

The American Colonization Society recommended the voluntary emigration of free blacks, including former slaves, to Liberia, West Africa. Colonization societies had been around for a long time. They were popular even in the South, where they were often supported by prominent proslavery advocates. This raised the suspicion of antislavery types, who suspected that plans for colonization served the interests of racists who wanted to diminish the number of blacks in America. But when Birney later published a repudiation of colonization, he stressed that the founders of the American Colonization Society sincerely believed that voluntary emigration would hasten the end of slavery in America. He also noted, however, that the stress on voluntary emigration was misleading at best. Free blacks in Alabama were legally forbidden to associate with slaves, and most whites wanted nothing to do with them. Schools for black children were legally forbidden, and this, along with other legal measures, made it questionable whether those blacks who volunteered to be shipped to Africa were acting without compulsion. Moreover, some slaveholders offered to free their slaves only on the condition that they agreed to move to Africa, and this poked another hole in the argument that colonization was purely voluntary.

In Letter on Colonization (1834), which was published as an open letter to Rev. Thornton J. Mills, Corresponding Secretary of the Kentucky Colonization Society, Birney explained why he could no longer support voluntary efforts to send free blacks (including newly emancipated slaves) to Liberia, where they could form their own society free of racial prejudice. During his time as vice-president of the Kentucky Colonization Society, Birney had worked energetically to raise funds and generate public support for colonization; and his efforts contributed to shipping 150 volunteers from New Orleans to Liberia. Colonization, however, necessarily entailed gradualism as an emancipation strategy, and Birney became convinced that gradualism was largely a rationale for current slave owners to claim that they opposed slavery without doing anything concrete to end it.

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