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James G. Birney (1792 – 1857)
James G. Birney (1792 – 1857)
James G. Birney, though a native of Kentucky, played a significant role in the early history of Alabama. He was born in Danville, Kentucky on February 4, 1792, graduated from Princeton University in 1810, and returned to Danville to practice law.  In 1816 he was elected to the Kentucky legislature but moved to Huntsville, Alabama in 1818 since he saw Alabama as a place of opportunity.

Though not a member of the Alabama Constitutional Convention, he was a member of the first state legislature. He helped revise the territorial laws and organized the state judiciary. In his law practice he defended freed slaves and Native Americans when they needed legal representation. Among his other contributions, he founded the Huntsville Library Company, was involved in local education efforts, was appointed solicitor for the Fifth Circuit of Alabama which included Walker, Blount, Morgan, Jackson, and Madison counties, was appointed a Huntsville alderman, elected mayor of Huntsville, and then in 1830 was named to the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama. All of these activities took place before his 40th birthday.

Birney was also a man of conflicted views. Though he was a slave owner, he became famous for his crusade for racial justice. He favored laws to ensure the humane treatment of slaves. He became involved in the movement to emancipate slaves and became a member of the National Colonization Society of America seeking to reintroduce former slaves to their African heritage. When his views fell out of favor with local residents, he left Alabama in 1833. His opinions evolved over time from colonization to gradual emancipation to immediate emancipation.

In 1840 Birney was nominated as a candidate of the Liberty Party for President of the United States. He only received 7,059 votes that year. However, in one of those circumstances where the man and the moment met, Birney’s presence on a ballot probably changed history.

In 1844 he was again nominated as the presidential candidate of the Liberty Party. This was the year of the very close election between the Democratic candidate, James K. Polk, and the Whig party candidate, Henry Clay, a family acquaintance of Birney’s from Kentucky. In the national popular count Polk received 1,337,243 votes or 49.3% of the total to Clay's 1,299,062 votes or 48.1%. Birney received 62,300 or 2.3% of the total. In this election, reminiscent of Bush-Gore in 2000, the winning candidate needed 138 electoral votes. Polk had 134.  Clay had 105. New York State with 36 electoral votes would decide the election.

New York, like Florida in 2000, was a very close race.  Polk received 237,588 votes to Clay's 232,482, a plurality of 5,106.  But Birney had received 15,812.  If Birney had not been in the race, and if only one third of his votes had gone to Clay, Clay would have won New York and the presidency. We can only guess how history would have changed. Would there have been a war with Mexico over Texas which Polk advocated and Clay opposed? Would there have been a different policy toward the Oregon Territory? We will never know.

Birney was injured in an accident following a fall from a horse in 1845 and was partially paralyzed. However, he continued to write on political and constitutional issues involving slavery. He died in 1857, prior to the war that would tear the nation apart. Though he lived in Alabama only 15 years, James G. Birney made significant contributions to this state in the areas of government, politics, and education, and he is remembered nationally for his ideas on slavery. The lawyers of Alabama honor him today with induction into the Alabama Lawyers Hall of Fame.

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