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James Birney (1817-1888)
Biography & related documents.

Biography. (Added Jan., 2009)

Historical Collections, by Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, 1892.


By A. C. Maxwell

In undertaking to write an account of those men who have heretofore been members of the Bay county bar I have found myself so embarrassed by any attempt at discussion of the character of those members still living that I shall only give some account of those who are dead.

I settled in lower Saginaw (now Bay City) in March, 1857. When I arrived there I found Messrs. C. H. Freeman, W. L. Sherman and James Birney had preceded me, and they were all then actively engaged in the practice of law.


Hon. James Birney was born at Danville, Kentucky, in 1817. His father, James G. Birney, candidate for the liberty party for president in 1840 and 1844, resided in Lower Saginaw from 1840 until 1856. He was trustee of the old Saginaw Bay company, which owned the section of land on which the original plat of Lower Saginaw was first laid out, and no doubt the interests that he left in Bay City was the cause of the settlement of his son at that place.

James Birney was educated at Center College, Ky., and at Miami University, Ohio, from which latter institution he was graduated in 1836. For the two years succeeding his graduation he occupied the position of professor of the Greek and Latin language at that institution. He afterward studied law at New Haven, Conn., and subsequently entered upon the practice of that profession at Cincinnati, Ohio. While at New Haven he married Miss Moulton, cousin of Commodore Isaac Hull who capture the Guerriere on the 19th day of August, 1812. In 1856 Mr. Birney removed with his family to Lower Saginaw (now Bay City) and at once interested himself in the development of the place. From that time until his death Bay City was his home.

Mr. Birney was a prominent republican in politics and in 1858 was elected to the State senate, and in this office he displayed both great capacity and great independence. In the year 1859 most that great grant of swamp land which the general government had made to the State for the purpose of drainage and reclamation was appropriated by the State for the building of State roads and to the construction of drains and ditches. And here Mr. Birney rendered services to northern Michigan, for which its people for all time to come should be forever grateful. There was a strong body of men in the legislature that year, who were determined to ignore and neglect the conditions of the trust, and sell the swamp lands and apply the proceeds of the sale to the school fund, thus leaving the northern portions of the State with its swamps and morasses to take care of themselves. And as the phrase went, let them get out of the woods as best as they can. Mr. Birney overcame this faction and secured the legislation which has opened up northern Michigan through every portion of it with the State roads.

So well did he perform his duty as senator as to attract general attention, and in 1890 he was elected lieutenant governor of the State. He was exceptionally well qualified for the office of president of the senate. He was careful, studious, and absolutely impartial and independent, and managed to perform his duties with a constant suavity and grace that cause the members of that body to be very proud of him, and justly too, for all the men who have succeeded him in that office, none has reached that high standard attained by Judge Birney as a presiding officer.

In the senate that year (1861) were Henry P. Baldwin, afterwards governor and senator, Byron G. Stout, afterwards a candidate of his party for governor and since a member of congress, and Solomon L. Withey, afterwards judge of the federal courts at Grand Rapids, and many other distinguished sons of Michigan. And it is safe to say that Judge Birney was the full equal of all these distinguished men. He had a natural aptness on the floor of the senate; always with sincerity and ability, and always with firmness and kindness. While he was ambitious he was totally above all the low schemes and practices of modern politicians.

In the spring of 1861 Governor Birney was appointed circuit judge of the eighteenth judicial circuit, then composed of the counties of Bay, Iosco, Alcona, and Alpena. He presided four years on the bench of that circuit. He was a dignified, prudent, and careful judge. His administration of justice was satisfactory. He was modest, kind, accommodating, fair, impartial, and generally right, but like all judges he made some mistakes. I remember once he intimated a decision against me. I mentioned to him that supreme court had decided otherwise, and showed him the decision of Tannahill vs. Tuttle. He refused to modify his ruling and simply remarked, “So much the worse for the supreme court.” I cheerfully add that he was right, as Tannahill vs. Tuttle was afterwards overruled. He was not well adapted to a judicial position. While his mind was active of the rules of the law which to the general student appear unreasonable.

After leaving the bench he resumed his practice of law in Bay City. In 1867 he was elected member of the constitutional convention and actively participated in the proceedings of that body. He was very conservative, perhaps, too much so, as the work of the convention was rejected by the people.

In 1870 Mr. Birney established the Bay City Chronicle, a weekly newspaper, and in 1873 it was issued daily. It was published until after Mr. Birney's departure for the Hague, when it was merged into the Tribune. In 1872 he was appointed to the Netherlands. This was a position to which he was exceptionally well adapted. He held this office until 1882, when he returned to Bay City. His father was a graduate of Princeton, a man of fine taste and elegant accomplishments. He was simple and free in his manner, liberal in his views in everything except upon the subject of slavery, perfectly honest, and no doubt from him Judge Birney acquired those elegant manners for which he was noted.

At the court of Holland, as a representative of the United States, he was highly distinguished, and it is probable that of all the representatives of the nations at that court he was the most respected and admired as a man. It is true the embassadors from Germany, France, and Russia with millions of armed men near at hand, and England with her tremendous navy, each able to crush Holland in a month, must be shown great consideration; but this was due to force and to the position of affairs, not to the representative or to the man who might happen to represent the nation. Judge Birney maintained a high position there, and did much to elevate the embassy and in the building up of friendly feelings towards the people of the United States. He did in May, 1888.

Mr Birney was a man of great public spirit and filled the man public offices, to which he was either elected or appointed, with ability and fidelity. He was devoted to the interests of Bay City and Bay county, and took an active part in promoting their growth and development.

At the time of his death he was president of the board of education of Bay City, and in this office, as in all other positions of public trust occupied by him, he made his duty to the people of paramount importance. He was a man of sensative and refined feelings, firm in his convictions, of fine appearance, and eminently qualified by education and manners to shine in the higher walks of public life. Politicians accused him of being an aristocrat, but he was a true, loyal, tender hearted gentleman who could not play the demogogue.


Although Judge Birney was self-possessed and circumspect in his conduct, one morning in the spring of 1859 he said to me, “I feel most devilishly ugly this morning.” The next morning I learned the occasion of his wrath. At this time there was not a rod of made road in Bay county. There was but one span of horses in town. People's cattle, cows, pigs and geese run everywhere at large on the property of every land owner with impunity. Judge Birney had cleared some blocks between Ninth and Tenth streets in Bay City, and had made some clearing where the family homestead now stands. He had cleared his lands, fenced it, and planted it. It so happened that this enclosure embraced a sand ridge over which the settlers' cows had passed out to the woods to graze. On each side of the judge's fences were swamps, so that when the cattle got beyond his enclosure they could not find their way home, and every night the settlers would pull down his fences and let the cattle through to their homes. Finally he laid in wait for them and one evening caught two old German settlers named Mikler and Steinbauer letting down his fences. It was past one o'clock in the morning. He at once woke up Squire Chilson, and both trespassers were arrested, tried them before two o'clock in the morning and had them in jail punctually at three.

1888 Death Notice. (Added Apr. 2008)

Saginaw Evening News - May 8, 1888 (Page 7)


Bay City Loses One of Her Representative Citizens.

James Birney, a few years ago one of the most widely known men in Michigan, died at 9:15 o'clock this morning at his home on Tenth street, Bay City, at an advanced age, a complication of diseases of the heart and kidneys being the direct cause of death. Mr. Birney had been suffering during three or four years past from the effects of these diseases, but did not take to his bed until a week ago. His only children, Miss Sophia Birney and Mrs. F. E. Blackwell, and his sister, Mrs. Charles E. Jennison, were at his bedside.

Mr. Birney was one of the earliest settlers in the Valley, having passed the greater portion of his life hereabouts, and did much toward the development of the early Saginaws and Bay City, his father and family coming to Saginaw in 1841.

Early in life Mr. Birney took an active interest in politics, having been trained therein by his father, James G. Birney, who ran for the Presidency in the United States as a candidate of the Liberty party in 1840, and again in 1844. The father's defeat did not deter the son, who soon after attaining his majority took even greater part in politics. He was elected to the State Senate in 1858; in 1860 he was chosen Lieutenant-Governor by the people of Michigan by over 60,000 majority; served as Circuit Judge for the district combining Bay, Saginaw, Midland, Gratiot, Isabella and Iosco counties; in 1875 President Grant appointed him as Minister to the Netherlands, and he filled his office with distinquished honor while at the Hague.

Aside from these important positions filled with credit by Mr. Birney, he held many minor offices of trust at the hands of the people, being a member of the Bay City Board of Education at the time of his demise, and was one of that city's most highly esteemed and much respected citizen. He was the founder of the Bay City Chronicle, which was merged into what is now the Tribune of that city. In the death of Judge Birney, Bay City loses a representative man, one who held the good will and friendship of all who knew him.

The funeral will be held on Thursday, from the Episcopal Church and will be attended by military organizations, civic societies, members of the Common Council and Board of Education, and a large concourse of citizens.

This ends a busy life.

1888: The New York Times newspaper. (Added Oct., 2008)

The New York Times - Wednesday, May 9, 1888


The Hon. James Birney died at Bay City, Mich., yesterday morning after 10 days' illness, aged 70 years. He went to the Saginaw Valley in 1853, and five years later was elected State Senator. In 1860 he was chosen Lieutenant-Governor of Michigan, and subsequently served four years as Circuit Judge. In 1875 he was sent as Minister to the Netherland by President Grant and remained at The Hague until 1882, when he returned to Bay City and entered upon the active practice of the law. Mr. Birney was the eldest son of the Hon. James G. Birney, who ran for the Presidency in 1840 and 1844 on the free-soil ticket.

1888 Pioneer Society. (Added Jun., 2008)

Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society
Annual Meeting of 1888, Vol. XIII


From the Cheboygan Democrat of May 10, 1888, a paper of different standpoint in politics to Mr. Birney:

Hon. James Birney died at Bay City, Tuesday, May 8, 1888, and in his death the 10th district loses one of its most cultivated and talented men. He came of an historical family. His father, James G. Birney, gained a world-wide fame by freeing all the slaves inherited from his father, and was a presidential candidate twice, in 1840-44, as an anti-slavery man. Mr. Birney had held many important offices, state and national, having been representative in the legislature from this district, lieutenant governor of the State, circuit judge, and minister plenipotentiary to the Hague, from 1876 to 1882. The latter office he resigned to return home and stand for congress in this district, having been promised the nomination, which was then considered as good as an election. But the decent men of the republican part could not prevail, and the nomination went to Hatch. Again in 1884 he was beaten for the nomination by the pothouse politicians of Bay City, and a fellow name Gibson put up, who was beaten out of his boots by Congressman Fisher. Had the party been faithful to Birney, it is altogether probable that they would still control the district. Judge Birney was not a popular man with the raging and bobtail elements of the g.o.p., as he did not get drunk, nor play cards in saloons, pack caucuses, or cultivate the bum elements; they thought him an aristocrat, but he was only a true, loyal, tender hearted, gentleman, who could not play the demagogue.

In Memoriam.

Judge James Birney died at his residence in Bay City, May 8, 1888, aged 71 years.

Judge Birney was early identified with the Saginaw valley, being one of the pioneers, his father, the Hon. James G. Birney, the great philanthropist, having settled here some years before he came. Judge Birney came to Lower Saginaw, now Bay City, in 1856, having purchased his father's interest.

He was the means of getting a bill passed changing the name of Lower Saginaw to Bay City. He was elected a State senator in 1858, receiving all the votes cast but five, although it was a democratic district. In 1860 Judge Birney was nominated lieutenant governor and elected by 20,000 majority.

Some time after he was appointed circuit judge of what is now the 18th judicial circuit. From 1871 to 1873 he was owner and editor of the Bay City Chronicle. In 1872 he was appointed by the president as Centennial Commissioner for Michigan to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. In 1875 he was appointed United States minister to the Netherlands, where he served four years, when he resigned and returned home to attend to his real estate, in which he was largely interested in this city and county. Judge Birney held many offices in the gift of the people which we have not space to mention. He was president of the board of education of Bay City at the time of his death. Judge Birney had five children of who only one, a daughter, survives him, his wife having also died some few years since.

As a man Judge Birney was a perfect gentleman, honest and straight-forward in all his dealings with his fellow men and was universally respected by all who knew him. In his death and community sustain a great loss.

1892 brief bio., - Added Jan., 2010.

Alumni & Former Student Catalogue,
Miami University, Oxford, Ohio - 1892

Class of 1836.


A. B. A. M Assistant Teacher in Grammar, Miami Univ., 1836-38. Graduated in law at Yale and practised in Cincinnati. Moved to Bay City, Mich., 1857. Member of Michigan Senate, 1858-59. Lieutenant-Governor and acting Governor of Mich., 1860-62. Circuit Judge, 1862-66. Established "The Bay City Chronicle," 1873; subsequently merged into the "Tribune." Appointed Centennial Commissioner for Mich., 1872; Minister Resident of the U.S. to The Hague, Holland, 1875-82. Born, Danville, Ky., Jan. 7, 1817. Died May 1888.

1924 Political Biography.

Michigan Biographies
Michigan Historical Commission - 1924 (Page 84)


Senator from the Twenty-eighth District, 1859-60;
Lieutenant governor, 1861: and
Delegate from Bay County to the Constitutional Convention of 1867.
Was born in Dansville, Ky., and was the son of Hon. James G. Birney, the Abolitionist candidate for President in 1844.
He obtained his education at Centre College, Ky., and at Miami University, O., graduating at the latter in 1836. In 1837-8 he was professor of Greek and Latin in Miami University. He attended the law school of Yale College for two years, and commenced practiced at Cincinnati, O., which he continued eleven years.
He was an early settler at Bay City.
He was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1860, and served from Jan. 1, 1861 to Apr. 3, 1861, when he resigned to accept a position as Circuit Judge to fill a vacancy, where he acted for four years. He was renominated for Judge but was defeated.
In 1871 he established the Bay City Chronicle, and the daily in 1873.
In 1876 he was a Centennial Commissioner for Michigan at the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia.
Later he was appointed United States Minister at the Hague where he remained several years.

He died May 8, 1888.

1943 newspaper business. - Contributed by Jim Petrimoulx - July, 2010.

The Bay City Times - May 8, 1843 (page 2) The Bay City Times – May 8, 1943.

James Birney Founded Chronicle
in Two-Fisted Bay City News Era.

The fifty-fifth anniversary of the death of Former Circuit Judge James Birney today recalled the era when Bay City's favorite newspapers were those which mastered the bitterest jibes against political and editorial foes.

A leading figure of Bay City's earliest days, Judge Birney established the Bay City Chronicle as a weekly in 1871, converting it into a morning daily in 1873. On April 5 of that year, the Bay City Tribune – called the city's first real daily – was established as a Republican evening newspaper under the editorship of John Culbert.

No Holds Barred.

No holds were barred in the era of which Judge Birney was part. Even to the point of having editors challenge one another to duels.

Take the case of Tribune editor George K. Shaw, for example. When Carroll S. Bartram, his former city editor, became editor of the competing Bay City Morning News, Shaw printed an item stating that it had been rumored a certain degenerate had been engaged to edit the News.

Insulted, Bartram called Shaw “a liar,” in his next issue the Tribune editor challenged Bart to a duel.

“You have accepted our challenge,” Shaw wrote soon afterward, “and at your request we will name our weapons. Our duel will be fought with pudding sticks.”

This wasn't too serious, however, for Shaw later hired Bartram as city editor of the Minneapolis Journal; the News soon “folded;” and eventually all Bay City daily newspapers but one fell by the wayside.

Father Sought Presidency.

Successfully combining journalism and politics, Judge Birney was state senator from the twenty-eighth district in 1858-60. He was lieutenant-governor in 1861, and delegate from Bay county to the constitutional convention of 1867. At least part of his political background came from his father, James G. Birney, Abolition candidate for president in 1844.

After only three months as lieutenant-governor, Birney resigned in April, 1861, to accept a position as circuit judge to fill a vacancy. He held that position for next four years, was renominated for the judgeship but was defeated.

Three years after establishing the daily edition of the Chronicle, Birney was a Michigan representative at the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia. Later he was appointed United States minister at the Hague where he remained several years, prior to his death May 8, 1888.

Related Pages/Notes
James Birney
Judge James Birney
First child of
James G. & Amanda (McDowell) Birney.

More on subject:
1860 newspaper article.
Bio: James Birney
Related Pages:
Birney Family History
Hatch, Herschel H.
Jennison, Charles E.
People Referenced
Baldwin, Henry P.
Bartram, Carroll S.
Birney, Alice (dau)
Birney, Arther (son)
Birney, James M. (subject)
Birney, James, Jr. (son)
Birney, James G. (father)
Birney, Sophia (dau.)
Blackwell, F.E.
Chilson, Squire
Culbert, John
Freeman, C.H.
Grant, President
Hull, Isaac (f-in-law)
Jennison, Charles E.
Maxwell, A.C.
Moulton, Amanda (wife)
Shaw, George K.
Sherman, W.L.
Stout, Byron G.
Withey, Solomon L.
Subjects Referenced
28th District
Alcona Co., MI
Apena Co., MI
Bay City Chronicle
Bay City Tribune
Bay County, MI
Bd. of Educaton
Dansville, KY
Centre College, KY
Circuit Judge
Episcopal Church
Grand Rapids, MI
Gratiot Co., MI
Iosco Co., MI
Isabella Co., MI
Liberty party
Lt. Governor of MI
Lower Saginaw, MI
Miami Univ., OH
Midland Co., MI
MI Centennial Commissioner
Miami Univ., OH
Minneapolis Journal
New Haven, CT
Philadelphia, PA
Saginaw Co., MI
Senator, MI
US Minister to Hague
Yale College
1860: Bay City.
Birney, James, 42 yrs
Amanda, wife, 40
James, son, 16
Sophia, dau, 12
Arther, son, 11
Alice, dau, 7
Internet References
None at this time.
WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.