James Gillespie Birney initially supported "colonization" (returning slaves to Africa). Slowly evolving into a supporter of gradual emancipation, Birney freed his slaves in 1834. Twice Birney was a presidential candidate (1840 and 1844) for the relatively small abolitionist movement.
Born on Saturday, February 4, 1792 in Danville, Kentucky (south of Harrodsburg, Kentucky ) and raised by a paternal sister after the death of his mother, Birney began attending Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky when he was 11. Although Kentucky was a slave state at the time, Birney would later claim he was brought up "under influences that were distinctly anti-slavery" and that "I can not remember a time when I thought slavery was right."
In 1808 he attended New Jersey College (today's Princeton University ). Twenty-five young men graduated with him in 1810 including Joseph Cabell Breckinridge (father of John Breckinridge ) and George Mifflin Dallas, vice-President under James Knox Polk. Between 1810 and 1832 Birney sought to restrain the importation of slaves into Alabama (where he lived at the time), make public markets illegal and to punish "cruel masters." Citizens also openly supported abolition without suffering at the hands of anti-abolition mobs as they would have after 1840. It does not appear that these were considered extremist views in Alabama during these years and the Alabama State Legislature (and the Virginia legislature ) considered creating these as laws.
In Birney's first brush with politics in 1828 he stood as an anti-Jacksonian, and opposed both Nullification and the extension of slavery and for a protective tariff. Although he was not running for office he was an accomplished speaker. In 1832, according to an 1833 letter he wrote to Gerrit Smith, Birney realized the negative effect slavery was having on both his children and family and moved to Kentucky. It is probable that he believed in gradual emancipation before he left Alabama, but shortly after arriving in Kentucky he expressed his view that emancipation was the only solution to slavery.
In Kentucky, Birney had support for his views on emancipation from the Kentucky Abolition Society, founded in 1807. That December, Arthur Tappan formed the American Anti-Slavery Society in Cincinnati. In February, 1834 Birney journeyed to Cincinnati to participate in the Lane Seminary debates of abolition and met Tappen. At some time between these debates and his move to Cincinnati in 1835, Birney became an immediate emancipationist. He released his six slaves (a family of five and the mulatto child the wife had by a former master) in June, 1834 and urged fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay to follow his lead. Clay, however, was looking to be President of the United States and refused.
After moving to Cincinnati, Birney began publishing an abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist. For months, pro-slavery secret societies had been forming, especially in the border states and near large cities. The pro-slave mobs began striking abolitionists in 1834. Birney later admitted to Gerrit Smith that his fear of these mobs had been part of the reason for his move to Cincinnati. In July, 1836 the mobs struck the offices of The Philanthropist twice. Salmon Portland Chase became a convert when his daughter's family was threatened by the same pro-slavery mobs that attacked the The Philanthropist. The future Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court assisted Birney in many ways, although he did not publicly declare his abolitionist feeling until 1841.
In 1838 New York was a strong abolition state, chosen by the American Anti-slavery Society for its 6th annual convention. At this convention a New Yorker by the name of Myron Holley proposed running an abolitionist as a third-party candidate. It was not the first time such a proposal had been made but it was the first time a party was organized and a candidate selected.
James Birney's nomination as the Liberty Party candidate for President in the Election of 1840 drew only 6,000 votes. Vote totals that appear for Birney vary widely because the name of the party changed from state-to-state. Known variously as the Freedom Party, Abolition Party, Free Democrats, and National Republicans, the Party had little unity. It did not include the Conscience Whigs, led by John Quincy Adams' son Charles. To further organize the Liberty Party after the election, Birney asked Chase to help. By 1843 a Liberty Party Convention held in Buffalo, New York drew 1,000 delegates.
Shortly before the Election of 1844, Whigs in Detroit, Michigan, and New York City published a document that would come to be known as the "Garland Forgery" because it was addressed to J.B. Garland of Saginaw, Michigan. Candidate Birney received a copy of the forgery before boarding a boat from Buffalo to Detroit on November 3rd. The document, purportedly signed by Birney, stated that Birney was withdrawing from the race and asked his supporters to vote for Henry Clay.
Birney worked hard countering the effects of the Garland forgery. Although the affect of the letter will never be known, Birney's totals reflected the growing cause of abolition and the greatly improved organization of the Liberty Party. James Birney, who moved to Central Michigan near Saginaw in 1842, drew 62,000 votes but he had spent some of the year speaking in Great Britain.
On his ranch in Michigan, Birney suffered a paralyzing fall from a galloping horse in 1845. After convalescing at his farm for years, he sought medical care in the East in 1853. He died on Wednesday, November 25, 1857, never recovering from his injuries. From 1845 afterward, Birney's wife and sons attended to most of his affairs.