History Podcasts

James Birney

James Birney

James Birney was born in Danville, Kentucky on 4th February, 1792. A lawyer, after working in Danville, he was elected to the Kentucky Legislature in 1816. Two years later he moved to Alabama where he was elected to the Alabama Legislature in 1819. A strong opponent of slavery, Birley started his own newspaper, the Philanthropist.

A member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Birney was elected as executive secretary in 1837. Unlike William Lloyd Garrison, he believed that the organization should concentrate on political action. Three years later he travelled to England where he was appointed vice president of the World Slavery Convention. His book, The American Churches, the Bulwarks of American Slavery, was published in 1840.

In 1840 the Liberty Party selected Birley as its presidential candidate, but won only 7,000 votes. Four years later this was increased to 62,300 votes. James Birney died in Eagleswood, New Jersey, on 25th November, 1857.

James Birney

James Birney was an abolitionist, an opponent of slavery, in the years before the American Civil War.

Birney was born on February 4, 1792, in Danville, Kentucky. His parents were wealthy slave owners, but like a number of other slaveholders in the Upper South, they believed that it was only a matter of time before slavery would end. Some of these people were morally opposed to slavery, believing that it was un-Christian and un-American to own another person. Other slave owners believed that slave labor was becoming too expensive. Birney shared his parents' views. He attended several schools, including Transylvania College and the Priestly Seminary at Danville. Birney graduated from Princeton University in 1810, and he began to study for a legal career in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1814, he opened a law practice in Danville.

Birney became a slave owner in 1816, when he married and received the slaves as a wedding gift. In 1818, Birney moved his family to a plantation near Huntsville, Alabama. He became involved in politics and served as a member of Alabama's constitutional convention. He also became a member of the Alabama legislature. His political career suffered when he became an outspoken opponent of Andrew Jackson and called for his fellow slave owners to support the gradual end of slavery.

In 1833, Birney moved his family back to his ancestral home in Kentucky. Birney was rarely at home, as he lectured across the South, calling for the gradual end to slavery and the colonization of the former slaves in Africa. He realized that gradual emancipation was not a practical way to end slavery. He began to endorse the immediate end of slavery and freed his own slaves in June 1834. At the same time, he also began to publish an anti-slavery paper in Danville. Residents favoring slavery threatened Birney's publisher. The publisher fled the community, and no other publishers were willing to assist him.

Birney moved his family to Cincinnati, Ohio, in October 1835. On January 1, 1836, Birney began publication of a new paper, The Philanthropist, which called for the immediate end to slavery and equal rights for African Americans with whites. The paper was printed for several months of 1936 in New Richmond, Ohio, but the printing operation eventually returned to Cincinnati. Many Cincinnatians opposed Birney's views. Some of these people were former slave owners and believed that African Americans were inferior to whites. Other people opposed slavery but believed African Americans would move to the North and deprive white people of jobs. On January 22, 1836, a group of white Cincinnatians urged the city government to prohibit Birney from publishing his paper. Birney was undaunted. To prevent Birney from printing, a mob of white Cincinnatians destroyed the newspaper's printing press on July 12, 1836. Undeterred, Birney remained in Cincinnati and continued to publish his newspaper. The mob returned on July 30, 1836, and destroyed the printing press again. Birney resumed publication of The Philanthropist in September 1836, and he continued to publish it in Cincinnati, until October of 1843.

Besides publication of his newspaper, Birney assisted the abolitionist movement in many other ways. In September 1837, he moved with his family to New York, where he became the secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He also served as the Liberty Party's candidate for president in both 1840 and 1844. He was the only man to run for the presidency under that party's banner. In 1844, Birney received approximately 62,000 votes out of more than 2.5 million votes cast. The small vote total for the Liberty Party's candidate showed how small the abolitionist movement was in the North during this period. Birney's candidacy, however, may have won the election for Democrat James K. Polk and lost the election for Henry Clay of the Whig Party. Abolitionists tended to favor the Whigs. If the Liberty Party had not run a candidate, some of the 62,000 people who voted for Birney may have voted for Clay. Clay lost the election by fewer than 38,000 votes.

In between his two presidential campaigns, Birney moved to Bay City, Michigan. Birney was one of the earliest settlers of Bay City. He engaged in farming. In 1855, Birney moved to the East Coast, where he died on November 25, 1857. He remained a champion of abolitionism until his death.


Birney, William. 1890. James G. Birney and His Times: The Genesis of the Republican Party with Some Account of Abolition Movements in the South before 1828. New York: D. Appleton.

Dumond, Dwight L., ed. 1938. Letters of James Gillespie Birney, 1831-1857. 2 vols. New York: D. Appleton-Century.

Fladeland, Betty. 1955. James Gillespie Birney: Slaveholder to Abolitionist. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Lamb, Robert Paul. 1994. “James G. Birney and the Road to Abolitionism.” Alabama Review 47 (2): 83–134.

James Birney and the politics of abolition: who is James Birney? Nineteenth-century newspaper editorial writers asked this question when he ran for president on a third-party ticket in 1840 and 1844. The question is still being asked today, even in Michigan where Birney spent 12 years and became the first in the state to seek the presidency and the first such candidate to advocate the emancipation of slaves.

In the 1830s, James Gillespie Birney, a Kentucky-born lawyer and newspaper publisher, was one of the leading lights in the national movement to gain freedom for enslaved Africans. In fact, his opinions and actions on behalf of abolition were so respected that the Liberty Party nominated him for president in 1840. For a good part of the campaign, though, he was in London, England at the World Anti-Slavery Convention and thus able to secure only about 7,000 votes. Disappointed by the results of the election, he moved to a remote and sparsely settled part of Michigan to regroup.

With his second wife and six children in tow, Birney brought civilization to the wilderness hamlet of five families known as Lower Saginaw. This refined gentleman, whose friends and relatives included some of the nation's founders as well as politicians and intellectuals, returned to the soil. He bought a sizable section of Chippewa treaty land, cleared it, planted crops, and raised cattle, and promoted the Saginaw River community to friends back East. He conducted the first religious services, helped found churches and the first school, served as justice of the peace, and platted the village he called Bay City.

While building a new life for himself and his family, he continued to campaign for abolition. Asked to give a Fourth of July speech in Saginaw City, Birney refused, telling the planning committee: "With such proof before me of our National hypocrisy, I have for years declined having any part in celebrating the 4 July as the Anniversary of American Liberty. When that shall really arrive, and liberty be enjoyed by all the inhabitants of the land, no one will more cheerfully unite with the Committee in celebrating it than their very obedient and humble servant, J.G.B."

Despite Birney's intransigence over commemorating the holiday, Michigan anti-slavery forces embraced him. As soon as it was learned he had moved to Michigan, the Signal of Liberty--an abolitionist newspaper published in Ann Arbor--proclaimed a new Liberty Party ticket: "For President: James G. Birney, of Michigan. Westward the star of empire takes its way."

Birney lectured across the state and wrote newspaper articles promoting the anti-slavery cause. Supporters backed him in two campaigns for governor: the first in 1843 on the Liberty Party ticket and the second in 1845. In 1843, he got just 2,776 votes while the winner, Democrat John Barry, was re-elected with 21,392 over the Whig Zina Pitcher with 15,607. In 1845, as the Liberty star was fading, Birney ran on the Free Soil ticket, gaining 3,023 votes to 20,123 for Democrat Alpheus Felch and 16,316 for the Whig Stephen Vickery.

In between the runs for Michigan governor, the Liberty Party nominated Birney a second time for president in 1844. This time he campaigned seriously for several weeks, garnered 62,100 votes, and snatched the presidency from one-time neighbor and political ally Henry Clay on the Southerner's third and final attempt to win the executive office. Birney's 15,000 votes in New York vaulted James Polk into the White House. Birney's total was 2.3 percent of the national vote and ascended to 8 percent in heavily abolitionist Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Michigan gave Birney 3,639 votes or about 6.5 percent of the total--more than 10 times his 321 votes in 1840.

Birney might finally have achieved the presidency, some political observers theorize, had he not been partially paralyzed in a fall from a horse in 1845 near his home. Although his supporters sought to nominate him for the office a third time in 1848, he was forced to end his political career because of physical incapacity.

His mind was still very active, though. In 1852, he published a detailed analysis of the Supreme Court case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania. The court held that Congress had exclusive power over fugitive slaves, but arguments over enforcement led to a new fugitive slave act in 1850. Birney contended the founders considered slavery temporary, noting that James Madison had said it was wrong for the Constitution to state that men could hold other men as property. Birney also reviewed another fugitive slave case: Strader, Gorman and Armstrong v. Graham. He asserted the Ordinance of 1787, establishing the Northwest Territory and outlawing slavery in the region, was a compact between the founding states and the territories and could not be altered except by common consent. He called the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 unconstitutional, because it violated the writ of habeas corpus.

Birney began suffering paralytic strokes and heart attacks in the early 1850s. In 1853, he moved with his wife and their youngest son to a retirement community in Eagleswood, New Jersey. There Birney would die in 1857.

Despite living only 12 years in the Great Lakes state, Birney made his mark among its people and practices.

He didn't introduce the idea of abolition here. From its earliest days, Michigan had welcomed waves of Yankee settlers from the East who were independent and imbued with the frontier spirit of equality. By the 1830s, these residents had organized a network of stations on the Underground Railroad and begun to help thousands of runaway slaves find freedom in nearby Canada. In the 1840s, Michiganians gained national attention for forcibly repelling Kentucky slaveholders seeking to retrieve their "property."

What Birney did do was to galvanize existing abolition efforts in the state--an action that helped lay the foundation for the establishment of the Republican Party. The 50th anniversary history of the organization clearly makes this connection. U.S. Senator Isaac Christiancy, an early Michigan Republican, was also emphatic that Birney had inspired the abolition forces that transitioned through the Liberty and Free Soil movements to eventually form the party.

After preliminary meetings in February (Jackson, Michigan) and March (Ripon, Wisconsin), the first national Republican convention was held "under the oaks" in Jackson on July 6, 1854. Two years later, in the presidential election, the Republicans demonstrated the power of the anti-slavery coalition by turning out nearly 1.4 million votes for John C. Fremont. That strong showing presaged Abraham Lincoln's 1860 victory, when he garnered more than 1.8 million votes.

It took 20 years, but abolitionist forces finally triumphed in their fifth presidential campaign since Birney's first tentative run.


Before arriving n Michigan in 1841, James Birney made a name for himself in the histories of several other slates.

Born into a slave-owning family in Kentucky in 1792, he practiced law there as a young man and served on the Danville town council. In 1816, he married among the wedding gifts he and his wife received were slaves from his father and father-in-law. That year he also won a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives.

In pursuit of a more promising political career, he moved his wife and family to Alabama where he purchased a cotton plantation and more slaves. In 1819, he became a member of that state's house of representatives and--within five years--was named one of Alabama's solicitors general.

In 1829, he was elected mayor of Huntsville, Alabama, a position which enabled him to act on his newfound faith (Presbyterianism) and work for reforms in public education and temperance. His religious fervor also encouraged him to re-evaluate his views on slavery.

In 1832, he was offered a position as an agent for the American Colonization Society, which sought lo resettle free blacks in Africa. Despite his efforts, he failed to convert many to the concept of colonization and began to question its effectiveness. He then read a paper that repudiated the tenets of the society and called for the immediate abolition of slavery. This, along with his life experiences and education, brought Birney to the realization that slavery must be stopped. In 1834, he freed his slaves and declared himself an "abolitionist."

During the summer of 1835, he traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio to make contact with members of the abolitionist movement there. By October of that year, he had relocated to the Queen City to initiate publication of an abolitionist newspaper, the Philanthropist.

His writings aroused strong feelings in the southern part of the state a mob of while Cincinnatians destroyed the paper's printing press on July 12, 1836 and returned later that month to do more damage. Undeterred, Birney resumed publication of the Philanthropist by September. His courage in the face of such opposition was said to have inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to begin her anti-slavery writing--most famously, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Besides promoting abolition through print, Birney assisted the movement in many other ways. In 1837, he moved with his family to New York, where he became the secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society. From that state, he was drafted to serve as the Liberty Party's candidate for president in 1840.

D. Laurence (Dave) Rogers is a former reporter, columnist, and editor and was a journalism instructor at Michigan State University, Northwood University, and Delta College. He has been researching abolitionist James Birney for 15 years and has completed a manuscript titled |"Apostles of Equality: The Birneys, the Republicans, and the Civil War."

People, Locations, Episodes

*James G. Birney was born on this date in 1792. He was a white-American abolitionist, and politician who was a slave owner.

From Danville Kentucky, James Gillespie Birney He graduated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1810 where he studied law and moved to Alabama, where he made lots of money in his profession, also as a district attorney. In February 1818, he moved his family to Madison County, Alabama, where he purchased a cotton plantation and slaves, most of whom came with him from Kentucky. Having his attention turned toward the question of property in slaves, in 1833 he organized a branch of the Colonization Society for the State of Alabama and Kentucky there became president. In 1834, he supported the cause of immediate emancipation of slaves in a public correspondence, “Letter on Colonization.” This was followed by speeches at American Churches, the Bulwarks of American Slavery, speeches in England, and Examination of the Decision of the United States Supreme Court in the Case of Strader et al. v. Graham.

Birney tried to establish a newspaper to circulate these views in his hometown, where he held a professorship in the university. He found it impossible to have such a paper printed in Kentucky and moved across the Ohio River to Cincinnati. There he began to issue The Philanthropist newspaper. This had not been published before it was found no less obnoxious and the printing press was thrown into a river. However, the editor was able to revive the paper for use as a political instrument.

In 1836 he went to New York as the secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and for many years devoted his time and strength to the publishing further letters and articles. He wanted to build up a political party, later called the Liberty Party, on the single question of slavery to act upon the government within the forms of the Constitution. He was absent in England but was nominated by his party in 1840. His candidacy met little success, but he was once again nominated in 1844, when he received more votes. It was charged upon his friends that by electing him, they accomplished the election of James Polk, by pulling from other candidates. He died on November 25, 1857.

James M. Birney

James M. Birney (June 17, 1817 – May 8, 1888) was an American lawyer, newspaper publisher and politician from the U.S. state of Michigan. He served as the 13th Lieutenant Governor of Michigan and as the U.S. Minister to the Netherlands.

Birney was born in Danville, Kentucky, the eldest son of Agatha (McDowell) and James Gillespie Birney, who was a presidential candidate for the Liberty Party in the 1840 and 1844 elections. He spent his early years in Alabama and Kentucky. He was educated at Centre College in Danville and in 1836 graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. For the next two years, he was employed by the university as a professor of the Greek and Latin languages. After this, he studied law at Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut.

Completing his studies, Birney moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and began the practice of law until 1856, when he succeeded to his father's business interests in the Saginaw Valley of Michigan, where his father had made large investments in what has become Bay City. He moved there with in the summer of 1857. One of Birney's most notable early acts of public service was procuring the passage in 1857 of an act in the state legislature changing the name of "Lower Saginaw" to Bay City. In 1856, Birney had the distinction of editing the city's first newspaper, the Bay City Press, which lasted for only a few weeks.

In 1858, Birney was nominated as a Republican candidate for the Michigan Senate. At the time the senate district was regarded as a stronghold of the Democratic Party, thus it was seen as a significant achievement that Birney garnered all of the votes in the district within Bay County except for five. He served a single term in the Senate representing the Saginaw district. While in the Senate, he was chairman of the committee on public instruction and a member of the judiciary committee.

In 1860, he was nominated by the state Republican convention as the candidate for Lieutenant Governor with Austin Blair as candidate for Governor. Birney was elected to office by a majority of over 20,000 votes. While serving as Lieutenant Governor, a vacancy occurred in Michigan's 10th circuit court, and the governor offered the position to him. Birney resigned as Lieutenant Governor April 3, 1861 to accept the judicial appointment and served in that position for four years. He lost in the next judicial election and was succeeded by Jabez G. Sutherland.

After leaving the bench, Birney established the Bay City Chronicle in 1871 as a weekly Republican paper and in June 1873 began publishing the Morning Chronicle. He was also a delegate to Republican National Convention from Michigan in 1872.

In 1872, Governor Henry P. Baldwin nominated Birney to U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant as Centennial Commissioner for Michigan to celebrate the Hundredth Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. He was unable to serve in this capacity, however, as he was appointed on December 17, 1875 as U.S. Minister to the Netherlands. He departed for The Hague in 1876 and served until 1882.

Birney died on May 8, 1888 in Bay City, Michigan. He is interred in Pine Ridge Cemetery in Bay City.

While in New Haven studying at Yale College, Birney married Amanda Moulton on June 1, 1841. His wife was the stepdaughter of Nathaniel Bacon, Esquire of New Haven. Birney and his wife had five children: James G. Birney, Arthur Moulton Birney, Sophia Hull Birney, Alice Birney and one child that died in infancy. The eldest, James G. Birney, distinguished himself as Captain in the 7th Regiment of Michigan Volunteers and died while an officer of the U.S. regular army.

US Diplomat. Served as United States Minister to the Netherlands in 1876. Also served as Lieutenant Governor of Michigan in 1861, and Delegate to the Republican National Convention from Michigan in 1872.

New Richmond's rich black history connects to the Underground Railroad

There aren't many people who can trace their family history in the same town back 170 years. But Mary Allen can.

"Oh, I've got lots of stories," Allen said.

She lives in New Richmond, where she is not only a member of the village council, but she is the great-great granddaughter of successful African American businessman Howell Boone and his wife, Aley. They also lived in the neighborhood.

"Even though he was a slave, he knew he was treated a little differently, and when he was an adult he was given his freedom and so he came here," she said. That was in the 1850s, before the Civil War, when Boone owned a livery and grocery store on what became known as Boone's Corner.

New Richmond was front and center in the abolitionist movement of the 1800s. The village is home to multiple sites with a connection to the Underground Railroad.

Many of those sites have markers placed by either the state of Ohio, Clermont County or the National Park Service as part of its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Two locations have that designation: the location of the offices for James Birney's, The Philanthropist, an abolitionist newspaper, and the entire New Richmond riverfront the location was the scene of several documented slave escapes.

"I believe that this little village has every bit of the Underground Railroad history that other river towns that are a little more notorious for it have," said Greg Roberts, New Richmond's village administrator and local historian.

One story retold on an Ohio historical marker along the riverfront is about a slave named Jim from Kentucky who was given permission to visit his parents in New Richmond. But, Jim's travel was unconventional. He was packed in a crate carried by his friend Joe for the riverboat ride across the Ohio River. When they arrived in New Richmond, a well-known abolitionist was there to assist them. Lee Coffin and other abolitionists helped Jim get safely to Cincinnati and purchased a train ticket for him to travel to Sandusky. From there, it is believed Jim made it to Canada.

Meanwhile, the strong abolitionist sentiments are part of the reason James Birney went to New Richmond to launch The Philanthropist. With financial assistance from people like New Richmond physician Dr. John Rogers (also known for delivering President Ulysses S. Grant), village residents began strategizing about how to protect the newspaper.

“He was part of a group called the Chieftains of Liberty and this was a group of citizens, call them vigilantes, but these were vigilantes on the right side,” Roberts said.

They encircled the blacksmith shop where the newspaper was beihg published every night wtih torches and guns in order to protect it, said Bob Lees, a New Richmond native and owner of the Front Street Cafe.

"There were numerous threats for its demise," Lees said.

Eventually, Birney moved the newspaper to Cincinnati, because it was a much larger city with more financial backing. But the paper touched off a violent backlash.

"It was promptly attacked by a pro-slavery mob," Roberts said. "The typeset thrown in the Ohio River. And, there was basically a riot where many people were killed.”

Despite the setback, the paper resumed publishing.

Meanwhile, African Americans continued to make their way to New Richmond by the hundreds. During the village's bicentennial in 2014, Allen did a lot of research on the African American heritage of the area. She studied about 60 families, including her own.

“My parents live here, and my brothers and sisters and I were raised here," Allen said. "There’s another four families that had decedents that came here in the 1850s who still live here."

Between about 1870 and 1900, there were 100 or so African American families that amounted to close to 20 percent of the population, Allen said.

In 1857, Allen's great-great grandfather was one of more than 20 influential African American men in New Richmond who formed a group called the Union Association for the Advancement of the colored men of New Richmond.

“Information suggests they predated the Niagara movement and the NAACP,” said Allen. “They created the AME church and Baptist church. They were like a savings and loan to the members.”

Allen said they also offered support to black families around New Richmond. She describes New Richmond as a close-knit community -- for blacks and whites -- with a strong economy at that time.

“We had a foundry and we had the boats," she said. "We used to make boats. But, we were also a steamboat terminus. So, there would be work for people."

But much of that changed in the early 1900s, as many African Americans moved away to take industrial jobs.

“It’s kind of interesting that 150 years ago, 200 years ago, there was this diversity and people were interacting,” Allen said.

Roberts agreed that a look at the past might offer us some insight today.

“There’s a lot to learn from people working together because it was black and whites, men and women working together for a common cause that they believed was right,” he said.

Here are sites noted in New Richmond's Historic Walking Tour related to the Underground Railroad:

Michigan [ edit | edit source ]

In 1841, Birney moved to Saginaw, Michigan with his new wife and family. He lived at the Webster House in Saginaw for a few months until his home in Bay City, Michigan was ready. Birney was in the land development business in Bay City. He was a trustee of the reorganized Saginaw Bay Company and was deeply involved in the planning of Bay City, Michigan, where Birney Park is named after him. Birney and the other developers supported churches in their community where they set aside money for church construction. In addition to running for the Presidency in 1840 and 1844, Birney received 3023 votes for governor of the State of Michigan in 1845. Birney remained in Michigan until 1855, when his health drove him to move to the East Coast.

While in Bay City, Birney led a life of farming and agricultural pursuits in addition to his legal work, land development and national anti-slavery involvement. He commented on the lack of help available in the city and was found working on his own fence.

His son, James Birney, came to Bay City then called Lower Saginaw to take care of his father's business interests in the city. James remained in Bay City and followed his father's tradition of public service. He is buried in Pine Ridge Cemetery on the East side of town Α] .

Third Party Voting and the 1844 Election

I n 1844, as the United States shook off the effects of the worst depression in its history, the presidential election season began with the two major political parties riven by internal divisions. It saw a campaign filled with vicious personal attacks that often overshadowed the issues at stake. And it ended with popular vote totals so close that supporters of an ideologically purist third party effectively handed the presidency to a man whose policies were at explicit and direct cross-purposes with their goals. They voted their consciences, and the nation received neither the perfect nor the good.

Virginia Whig John Tyler was the sitting president in 1844, but over the course of the term he inherited after the untimely death of William Henry Harrison he had managed to alienate his entire party. Indeed, in 1841 the Whigs had booted Tyler from the party altogether after he vetoed several banking and tariff laws central to the Whig agenda. Tyler then tried building a new constituency by coming out in support of the annexation of Texas, which had declared itself an independent slaveholding republic in the 1830s after revolting against Mexican rule. But the effort failed dramatically and doomed Tyler’s already dicey ambitions for a second term.

It did, however, help situate the question of Texas as the central issue in the 1844 election.

The Whig Party, meeting in convention at Baltimore that spring, was the first major party to nominate a candidate for the White House. Their alliance was a fragile one that united anti-expansionist and moderately anti-slavery northerners with conservative proslavery southerners under a banner of federal support for economic development. Kentuckian Henry Clay, they believed, could do a great deal to hold that alliance together. Clay’s commitment to the party matched Tyler’s wobbliness towards it, and Clay was willing to stake out a position against bringing Texas into the Union. He was thus a southerner who could also appeal to northern Whigs hostile to the expansion of slavery that would come with Texas statehood. Still, as a slaveholder with a reputation for drinking and dueling, Clay did put off some northerners who fashioned themselves as pious reformers. To woo those potential voters, the Whigs selected Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey as Clay’s running mate. Antislavery and an evangelical Christian, Frelinghuysen could keep religious northern Whigs in the fold even as his belief in colonization and his distaste for abolitionists made him relatively inoffensive to Whigs from the South.

The Democrats too held their convention in Baltimore but their path to picking a nominee was as chaotic as the Whig path was clear. Former president Martin Van Buren arrived at the convention with a majority of pledged delegates but he opposed the annexation of Texas because he believed that political battles over slavery would surely ensue and split the party along sectional lines. That position weakened him. So did the facts that he had already lost the election of 1840, that he was widely believed sympathetic to abolitionism, and that younger Democrats thought him too much an establishment candidate. So a group of southern and expansionist party members thwarted him by reinstituting an old rule requiring a two-thirds majority for the nomination. Nine ballots and a great deal of infighting finally produced a winner in James K. Polk, a Tennessean and former Speaker of the House who almost no one had ever imagined would emerge as the nominee. A protégé of Andrew Jackson, Polk and his running mate, Pennsylvanian George Dallas, were not only plainly proslavery and in favor of Texas annexation. They also trumpeted the need for broader American territorial growth and appealed to northern expansionists with bluster about going to war with England to take the Oregon Territory, which stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Continental Divide and ran from the northern boundary of California all the way up to Alaska.

Even as—or perhaps because—the Texas issue seemed to provide a clear divide between the parties and their candidates, the campaign itself quickly turned personal and nasty. Whigs mocked “Polk the Plodder” as simultaneously a radical and a nobody whose affection for slavery was so great that he regularly sold people to slave traders for no reason other than greed. Democrats blasted Clay as unprincipled, a drunk, a gambler, and a man who visited prostitutes in the brothels of the capital—someone whose “debaucheries and midnight revelries” were “too disgusting to appear in public print.”

In the South, Democrats even tried attacking Clay as an abolitionist. This was an unlikely accusation and it contained a particular irony given that Clay also faced criticism from the uncompromisingly antislavery Liberty Party. Founded just prior to the 1840 election, the Liberty Party attracted politically oriented abolitionists with a platform demanding “the absolute and unqualified divorce of the general government from slavery.” Clay and the Whigs had initially ignored the threat of the Liberty Party, which had received fewer than 7,000 votes nationally in 1840. But the Liberty Party candidate, James Birney, disliked Clay personally and he pounced during the summer when Clay released a campaign letter that suggested he was waffling on the Texas issue. The more the abolitionists lambasted Clay as secretly a tool of the “Slave Power” and the more they denounced him as a slave dealer, the more the Kentuckian and his party began to worry that the election could turn on the third party pulling away northern antislavery voters in critical states.

The returns bore out those worries. Polk won handily in the Electoral College, 170-105, but he pulled out the narrowest of victories in the popular vote, beating Clay by just 38,000 votes nationally. Most important, Polk won the state of New York, which had 36 electoral votes and was by far the biggest prize, with a majority of just over 5,000 votes. James Birney, meanwhile, showed strength in upstate New York counties with significant numbers of antislavery voters. The nearly 16,000 votes for Birney in New York was roughly one-quarter of all the votes he received in the election of 1844, and it was more than enough to deny Henry Clay and the Whigs the presidency. Most Liberty Party voters were defectors from the Whigs, and had even half of them stuck with the Whig Party they would have given Clay an electoral college total of 141 votes and a slim victory over Polk and the Democrats.

James Birney and Liberty Party voters rejoiced in having denied Henry Clay the election. They also increased their national vote totals nearly tenfold and demonstrated that political abolitionism had to be taken seriously by the major parties and their candidates. But their joy was short-lived. If abolitionists had tried, they likely could not have found a chief executive who did more to advance the spread of slavery across the continent than James K. Polk. Polk not only finalized the admission of Texas into the Union but he went on to provoke a war with Mexico that was a naked land grab, that served the interests of the very “slaveocracy” abolitionists despised, and that inflamed sectional tensions to the point where they became irresolvable.

There were abolitionists, of course, who believed that civil war had to come and that the political system had become so corrupted by slavery that blowing it up was the only way to fix it. And perhaps that was so. Worth considering too, however, were the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who predicted even before the Mexican War began that “the United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn.” Political principles are vital things, but sometimes other people pay for our principles with their lives.

Watch the video: James Birney Google: ARCore introduction, demos and how to get started (January 2022).