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Heritage \ People \ James G. Birney \ Old Kentucky Newspapers \

Local History, Number VI
  • Contributed by Bryant of Danville, KY (March 2003)
  • The Kentucky Advocate - Saturday, January 28, 1893


    Historic Families, Early Politics, and General Reminiscence.


    (Historical facts suggested by files of "The Olive Branch"
    a paper published in Danville in 1826.)

    James Gillespie Birney was born in Danville, Feb. 4, 1798, and was educated here until eleven years old. Then he was sent to Transylvania University at Lexington, where he was a school-fellow of George Robertson, afterwards the eminent jurist. Remaining there for three years, he returned to Danville in 1805-6 and entered the seminary when taught here by Dr. James Priestley, the instructor of John Allen Pope, John Rowan, Felix Grundy, and Joseph Hamilton Daviess. At the age of seventeen he left Priestley's for Princeton College, New Jersey, where he graduated September 6, 1810. There his room-mate and classmate was Joseph Cabell Breckinridge. Another of his classmates was George M. Dallas, with whose father, Alexander J. Dallas, he afterwards studied law in Philadelphia, to the bar in which city he was admitted. There he lived the life of a man of fashion, as the wealth of his father, which was freely placed at his service, easily enabled him to do; -- his horses were the finest to be seen in the Quaker City, and none of the gay youth sported a more splendid plumage. In May, 1814, he returned to Danville and entered upon the practice of law. He became a Free Mason, entering Franklyn Lodge No. 28. That fall he was elected a member of the Town Council, and as a member of that body helped to found the Danville Academy, which afterwards bloomed into Centre College. In 1815 he made a canvass or Henry Clay for Congress and for George Madison for Governor. At the first election after he was twenty-four years old, in August, 1816, he was elected to represent Mercer county in the State Legislature, where he procured the enactment of a law to incorporate the Danville Academy, and to appropriate the proceeds of certain lands for its endowment; he voted for Martin D. Hardin and John Adair for the U.S. Senate; Hardin was elected, but Adair was defeated by John J. Critenden. At this session he gave an indication of his future career. The Senate had passed without opposition a resolution to open a correspondence with the Governors of Ohio and Indiana for the enactment of laws providing for the recapture and delivery of fugitive slaves. When it came to the House it was vigorously opposed by Birney. "What," said he, "shall the State of Kentucky do what no gentlemen would do -- turn slave catcher?" He defeated it, but afterwards it was passed in a greatly modified form.

    It has been said that his life when in Philadelphia was that of a man of fashion, of a gay and careless seeker of pleasure. When he returned to Kentucky he found himself the best educated man, the handsomest speaker, and the wealthiest of all his contemporaries in the region in which he lived. His temper, was genial and sunny, his imagination brilliant, his memory retentive, his power of declamation such as marked him at once for prominence. He had a handsome person, an attractive and intelligent countenance, graceful manners and all the elements of personal popularity. Seemingly, there was no one here who gave greater promise of a prosperous career. It must be said, that the had acquired that fondness for the gaming table, which proved a curse to so many of his associates. The partiality of his neighbors and the influence of his relatives gratified his ambition by placing him on the first step of the political ladder -- a seat in the Legislature -- as soon as he was eligible to the position, and his record during the single term in which he was a member of that body was auspicious for the fulfillment of their brightest hopes for his future. Cotton was not then King; his position upon the bill, to which reference has been made, would not have lost him a single vote in Mercer. But his impatience made him already sigh for a broader theatre for his talents and energies, and in Kentucky that theatre seemed barred against him for years by others; his seniors in years who had already won the lead. The gifted Joseph Hamilton Daviess had yielded up his restless life at Tippecanoe. The more stable, and scarcely less gifted John Allen, had mingled his life blood with the waters of the melancholy Raisin. But their peer in brilliant endowment, and their superior in all popular arts, had already made the name of Henry Clay illustrious. John J. Crittendan was in the flush of an early and vigorous manhood, which gave earnest of the fame he so richly earned and so nobly wore until death closed his gallant patriotic and useful life. Martin D. Hardin, the best lawyer of them all, was in the zenith of his powers. John Rowan, Jess Bledsoe, Isham Talbott, John Pope, Joseph Cabell Breckinridge, George Robertson, and others, constituted a galaxy, which has been seldom equalled in any State for brilliancy or ability. A friend induced him to make an excursion to Alabama, then a growing Territory, but which had every prospect of being soon admitted as a State into the Union. The prospects of a professional and political advancement which loomed up before his fancy, determined him to settle in Alabama -- to reside on a plantation and to practice law at the Huntsville Circuit. In February, 1818, he had settled his affairs in Kentucky.

    Old Kentucky 1893 Articles
    Some Very Old Papers
    The Polks
    Local History, No. V
    Local History, No. VI
    James G. Birney, No. VII
    James G. Birney, No. VIII
    James G. Birney, No. IX
    James G. Birney, No. X
    People Referenced
    Adiar, John
    Allen, John
    Birney, James G. II
    Bledsoe, Jess
    Breckinridge, Joseph C.
    Clay, Henry
    Critenden, John J.
    Dallas, Alexander
    Dallas, George M.
    Daviess, Joseph H.
    Grundy, Felix
    Hardin, Martin D.
    Madison, George
    Priestley, James (Dr.)
    Pope, John A.
    Robertson, George
    Rowan, John
    Talbott, Isham
    Subjects Referenced
    Danville Academy
    Danville, KY
    Centre College
    Franklin Lodge No. 28
    Free Mason
    Fugitive slaves
    Huntsville Circuit
    Mercer County
    New Jersey
    Princeton College
    Quaker City
    State Legislature
    Town Council member
    Transylvania University
    U.S. Senate

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