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

James G. Birney, Number X
  • Contributed by Bryant of Danville, KY (March 2003)
  • The Kentucky Advocate - Tuesday, February 7, 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 1860 Abraham Lincoln received 1,900,000 votes and was elected President of the United States. Mr. Birney held that Congress had no powers to interfere with slavery in the States in time of peace. He was for the Union, opposed to what he deemed illegal measures. While he was regarded in the South as an extremist, the moderation of his views soon separated him from Garrison, Phillips, Gerritt Smith and their associates. With such men, who denounced the Union as a league with death and the constitution as a covenant with hell; with men like John Brown, who would have deluged the country in blood, he differed irreconcilably. They made war on him, and continued their assaults long after the sod covered his manly frame and death had forever stilled the pulsations of his noble heart.

    The campaign of 1844 was the last in which he actively participated; for, in 1845, an accident disabled him and the remaining years of his life were those of a patient, self-communing invalid. For a time his faith had wandered; but it is gratifying to know that as he slowly faded away that faith was renewed and strengthened, and that when death came it found him a firm believer and at peace. The last years of his life were saddened by the conviction that, while slavery was doomed it would not be peaceably abolished, and he shrank from the contemplation of that fratricidal strife which he so clearly foresaw, from the visions of the desolation which awaited the people whom he loved and whom he had so eagerly and yet so vainly tried to serve. The end came at Eagleswood, New Jersey, on the 27th of November, 1857. Among the native sons of Danville there has never been one of a more noble mind, nor of a more unselfish and braver heart, nor one of whom they have better reason to be proud, than the self-exiled James G. Birney.

    The first wife of James G. Birney was one of the beautiful daughters of William McDowell, (Judge of the U.S. District Court); they were married on the 1st of February, 1816. Judge McDowell was an older brother of Col. Jos. McDowell and of Dr. Ephraim McDowell, of Danville; he was the first Senator from Mercer county and the first State Auditor. His wife was Margaretta Madison, a sister of Bishop James Madison, of Virginia, of Gov. George Madison, of Kentucky, and of Gabriel Madison, of Jesamine, who, if no mistake is made, was the ancestor of the Kinney family, of this county. They were all the children of John Madison, the first Clerk of Augusta county, and an uncle of President James Madison. The wife of John Madison was a daughter of Wm. Strother, of Stafford county; of the same family from which came "Old Rough and Ready." Mrs. Birney died in 1839. In that year his father also died, and he immediately emancipated all the slaves inherited from that father, the condition on which he was enabled to do so, exacted by his co-heir, being, that $20,000 should be set off against their value. He made for them a moderate provision. His own fortune was largely increased by judicious investments after leaving Kentucky, and, this was mostly spent in his public career.

    In the spring of 1841, he agained married, a Miss. Fitzhugh, a sister of the wife of Gerrit Smith; against her remonstrances, he at once secured her own very large fortune to her own separate use and control, and scrupulously refrained from ever using any part thereof. His oldest son, James Birney, an able lawyer and accomplished gentleman, was elected Lieutenant Governor of Michigan, and, as the acting Governor of that State for several years during the war, rendered important services in organizing and forwarding troops to the field. The son of this James, -- James G. Birney -- was a Lieutenant and Captain of cavalry and a staff officer under both Custer and Sheridan. The second son of James G. Birney -- William -- was Professor of English Literature in the University of Paris, but his republican principles and utterances not altogether pleasing Louis Napoleon, he received a polite intimation that the Emperor would not be displeased if the Professor would absent himself from France. Returning to the United States, he practiced law in Cincinnati and Philadelphia. He enlisted as a private soldier, was elected Captain and rose to the rank of Brevet Major General. He is now a lawyer in Washington City. David Bell Birney, the third son of the Abolitionist, after a brilliant career at the bar in Philadelphia, entered the army as a Lieutenant Colonel, was distinquished for gallantry, and rose to be a Major General. These were sons of the first wife. Dion Birney, the fourth son of the Abolitionist, a physician, was a Lieutenant and Captain. Fitzhugh, the youngest son, left Harvard University to enter the army. He rose from Lieutenant to Colonel, and served on McClellan's staff. All these, except William, died during or soon after the war, of wounds received in battle, or from disease contracted in the service.

    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, David B. (Gen.)
    Birney, Dion (Capt.)
    Birney, Fitzhugh (Col.)
    Birney James III (Capt.)
    Birney, James G. II
    Birney, James G. IV
    Birney, William (Gen.)
    Brown, John
    Custer, (Gen.)
    Fitzhugh, (Elizabeth)
    Lincoln, Abraham (President)
    Madison, Garbriel
    Madison, George (Gov.)
    Madison, James (President)
    Madison, James (Bishop)
    Madison, John
    Madison, Margaretta
    McClellan, (Gen.)
    McDowell, Ephraim (Dr.)
    McDowell, Jos. (Col.)
    McDowell, William (Judge)
    Napoleon, Louis (Emperor)
    Smith, Gerritt
    Strother, Wm.
    Subjects Referenced
    Augusta County
    Cincinnati, OH
    Danville, KY
    Eagleswood, NJ
    Harvard Univ.
    MI Lt. Governor
    Mercer County, KY
    Philadelphia, PA
    Stafford County
    United States
    U.S. Congress
    U.S. District Court
    U.S. Senate
    Univ. of Paris
    Washington City, D.C.

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