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

James G. Birney, Number VIII
  • Contributed by Bryant of Danville, KY (March 2003)
  • The Kentucky Advocate - Thursday, February 2, 1893


    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 August, 1831, the news of the South-hampton insurrection, with its bloody horrors, burst upon the country. James G. Birney had despaired of doing anything for the cause of emancipation in the South, and that fearful catastrophe determined him to arrange his business and seek another home. It is a mistake to suppose that his determination was reached because of the manification of unfriendliness by the people of Alabama. He had not then become an Abolitionist. In January, 1832, came the news of the slave insurrection in Jamaica. The result was a re-action in Alabama. The laws prohibiting the importation of slaves into the State were repealed, and no subsequent effort was made to re-enact them. Cotton had become King. He had informed the friends of Mr. Clay that it was his purpose to take no part in the campaign of 1831; he held himself aloof from the contest, devoting himself to the work of arranging his affairs prepartory to removal to Illinois, wehither he intended to convey his slaves and then free them. For five years he had been known as a moderate and gradual emancipationist. In July 1832, he was appointed agent of the Colonization Society, his district to cover the States of Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and this appointment, after great urgency, he accepted, and at once entered upon the discharge of its duties, traversing all the States which have been enumerated. But his observations deepened his despair of the South. His wife's health would no permit him to remove to Illinois, and, having purchased a small farm adjoining that of his father, near Danville, he came back with his family to their old home. By the people of Mercer, as well as by their relatives, they were welcomed with outstreched arms. He had around him every accessory of personal popularity and of public success. Himself in easy circumstances, and, as an only son, the heir to half of a large estate; a member of a large and influential family connection, with representatives in almost every part of the State; experienced in public business and in the varied practice of the law; always a good and sometimes a rarely eloquent speaker; with cordial manners which conciliated the good will, and a dignity of character which commanded the respect of all; no act of his public notoriety had separated him from the dominant party of the State, with the leaders of which he had been and was upon the most friendly terms; -- it can scarcely be doubted that if personal aggrandizement had been the motive of his actions, it lay ready to be plucked by the mere extending of his hand.

    Before leaving Alabama he had written to the slave-holders in Kentucky who had, in 1830-1, pledged themselves to gradual emancipation, urging them to call a convention to be held at Lexington, which was done. But some of them had experienced a change in sentiment; others thought the times unpropitious; still others desired great circumspection in action. Only nine persons attended -- all of them slave holders. The result was a bitter disappointment to him, but his enthusiasm could not be chilled. Within the two following years he had advanced from a Colonization and a Gradual Emancipationist to the position of an Immediate Abolitionist. In 1834 he emancipated all of his own slaves, giving the bond required by the State to guard against their becoming a public burden. He resigned his position as Vice President of the Kentucky Colonization Society.

    With a view to his permanent appointment to the Professorship of Ancient Languages in Centre College, the Trustees of Centre College had induced him to fill that chair during a temporary absence of Prof. William L. Breckinridge; the manner of which he had performed the duty was eminently satisfactory. But then the time for the election came he was passed over, as he was informed by Dr. Young, on account of his Abolition views. In 1834 he held his last interview with Mr. Clay, from whom he then separated forever; their views clashed; henceforth they were antagonists. The positions of Dr. R.J. Breckinridge, Dr. John C. Young, and of others of similar views, were not sufficiently advanced to please his eager mind. The Presbyterian Synod declared slavery sinful, and favored voluntary gradual emancipation; but this was not enough for Mr. Birney, who on the 11th of October, 1834, addressed a public meeting of the Synod, in the Presbyterian Church in Danville, in favor of immediate, involuntary, Abolition. Shortly threafter he went to Cincinnati to make arrangements for the publication of a paper in Danville as the medium of his opinions. The Report of the Synod Committee was drawn up by Dr. Young to a pamphlet of forty pages which advocated gradual emancipation, the manner of which was shown to Birney, and the argument of which he declared to Dr. Young to be sophistical and unworthy of the splendid mind of that eloquent Divine. Birney regarded it as an argumeent on the side of slave holders; he entreated Dr. Young to withhold it from publication, which the lather did for one short week and then gave it to the printer. The moderate views of Jos. R. Underwood in favor of colonization, he regarded as an illiberal reflection upon the Abolitionists. In March, 1835, the Kentucky Anti-Slavery Society was organized in Danville, with forty members, which by May had increased to forty-five. In Danville Lyceum Birney attempted to review Dr. Young's letter, the arguments of which he declared fallacious, and upon which he commented in terms which keenly stung Dr. Young. The latter asked for an adjournment until the next evening, when he vindicated his own views and assailed those of the Abolitionists in one of those masterly efforts which won for him his enduring fame. At this time there was no hinderance whatever thrown in the way of the promulgation of Birney's opinions; the hostility to his principles was not transferred to their advocate. The pastor of the Danville church, Dr. Young, gave public notice of his lectures, and no church in the State was refused him for either lecture or meeting. In the North there was hatred to the negro; there was none in Kentucky -- certainly none among slave holders. But as time went on the lines which separated him from those who had been his political, as well as personal friends, diverged more and more.

    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
    Birney, James G II
    Birney, Lyceum
    Breckinridge, R.J. (Dr.)
    Breckinridge, Wm. L. (Prof.)
    Underwood, Jos. R
    Young, John C. (Dr.)
    Subjects Referenced
    Danville, KY
    Danville Lyceum
    Centre College, KY
    Cincinnati, OH
    Jamaica slave insurection
    Kentucky Anit-slavery Society
    Kentucky Colonization Society
    Kentucky slave-holders
    Lexington, KY
    Mercer County, KY
    Presbyterian church
    Presbyterian Synod
    South-hampton insurection

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