The Kentucky Advocate - Tuesday, January 31, 1893
JAMES G. BIRNEY.
Serial Sketch of a Brilliant and Learned Son of Danville.
(Historical facts suggested by files of "The Olive Branch"
a paper published in Danville in 1826.)
In October, 1819, James G. Birney took his seat as a member of the Alabama Legislature, from Madison county, and was conspicuous in his labors and by reason of his talents and culture. He was the author of, and procured the passage of, the act which secured to all slaves tried by jury the right of counsel, to be paid by the State, and which excluded from the jury the master and the prosecuting witness and the relatives of both. The outcome of a sentiment of humanity and justice to a race that had but few friends brought upon him no odium in Alabama. He was as popular and as much admired in his adopted as he had been in his native State. But during the session General Jackson attended the races in Huntsville and Ingratiated himself with many of the members of the Legislature. In 1815 he had been suggested by Aaron Burr as a candidate for the Presidency. By 1819 the idea had acquired consistency and force. The hero of New Orleans had been given public receptions in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, and his journey homeward, the preceding March, from Knoxville to Nashville, had been one continuous civil and military ovation. In Alabama, on whose soil he had fought battles against the Indians and whose women and children he was represented to have rescued from the scalping knife and massacre, the enthusiasm for "Old Hickory" was fairly blazing. In the midst of the festivities incident to Jackson's visit to Huntsville -- between drinks, as it were, -- Col. Rose offered in the House a joint resolution which not only lauded the distinguished visitor to the skies, but also recommended and endorsed him for the Presidency.
In the Kentucky Legislature Birney had voted for a resolution complimenting Jackson, and though the laudation in Rose's resolution was extravagant, had it stopped there he would have waived his objections to its faulty taste and have voted for it also. But to endorse for the Presidency a man of Jackson's autocratic and violent temper was more than he could stand. Albeit knowing that by so doing he abandoned his own cherished hopes, he not only recorded his vote against the resolution, but in a speech as calm as it was forcible, gave his reasons therefor. In Alabama there was no political hereafter for any contemper of Jackson; henceforth the doors of political preferment were forever closed against the talented and high-minded, but all too scrupulous Kentuckian.
James G. Birney was not suited for a cotton planter. His tastes did not incline him to that kind of business. His manner of living was not only elegant; it was also luxurious; -- fine horses for driving and the saddle, fine furniture, a profuse hospitality, coupled with indulgence in his old fondness for the race course and gaming table, were rocks which soon embarrassed his course. Losses compelled him to mortgage not only his plantation, but also his slaves which had been reared in his own family and in that of his wife, in order to raise money with which to meet his liabilities. Every manly and generous sentiment of his mind revolted at the thought that his slaves - human beings -- should be sold to pay his gambling debts. He resolved to leave planting and devote himself to the law in order to keep them from the blocks; and never to play another card or to bet again. Religiously both resolves were kept.
In January, 1823, he had removed to Huntsville. There he found John McKinley, a Kentuckian, who afterwards became Congressman, U.S. Senator, and Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States; Harry I. Thornton, a Virginian, who had lived in Kentucky and where he married the sister of John J. Crittenden, and who aftwards became U.S. District Judge; James McClung, who associated with uncommon ailities a reputation for prowess similar to that which distinguished his kinsman of Mississippi; Clement C. Clay, Sr., afterwards U.S. Senator, and the Senior Jeremiah Clemens. These were his companions and friends in generous rivalry with whom he prospered in all his worldly affairs, so that he soon cleared off every debt by which he had been embarrassed. Through the friendly offices of McKinley and Thornton the Legislature elected him -- an anti Jackson man -- solicitor for the Fourth District.
In Huntsville he bought land and erected upon it what soon became the handsomest private residence of the city. Henry S. Foote, in a book published long after James G. Birney's death, bore a generous testimony to the love and respect entertained for him by the Alabamians;
"to his unspotted integrity as a man, and to his learning and eloquence and forensic skill. Numerous instances might be cited of his vigor and courage in the prosecution of crime, and to his unselfish and bold championship of the weak. While living in Alabama he was elected a Trustee of Centre College and made it a rule for years to attend the annual meetings of the Board. He was equally active in promoting educational institutions in his adopted State. During his years of gaiety and mirth he had entertained a respect for religion; increasing with advancing years it crystallized into conviction and in 1826 he united with the Presbyterian church. This spirtual growth brought with its conscientionsness in regard to slavery, which he had previously viewed only as an enlightened and elevated humanitarian."
Its first fruits were in his efforts in behalf of the colonization Society. Alabama was inoculated by his zeal in the cause. The next was in a law he procured to be enacted, which prohibited the importation of slaves into Alabama for sale or for hire. Visiting Danville in 1827, he secured the passage of resolution by the Masonic Lodge, which protested against the commerce in slaves as a "violation of the best feelings of our nature." He sternly prohibited the use of the lash upon his own slaves. In 1828, in his canvass against the election of Jackson to the Presidency, he distinctly enunciated his positions upon the slavery question, his hostility to nullification, his unshrinking fealty to the Union, and in favor of a protective tariff. In the summer of 1830, at the solicitation of the Trustees of the University of Alabama and of the Huntsville Female Seminary, he visited the Atlantic States in the North for the purpose of selecting a President and four professors for the former and three professors for the latter institution, a duty which he discharged in a manner which won the approbation and elecited the thanks of the Trustees of both institutions. One marked effect of his long visit and contact with the leading thinkers among American men of letters was so deepen and strengthen his opposition to slavery. That year he separated himself from the partisan politics -- from the time he was no longer the partisan of Mr. Clay, though their personal relations remained unaltered.