The first biographical account of the life of James Gillespie Birney in more than fifty years, this fabulously insightful history illuminates and elevates an all-but-forgotten figure whose political career contributed mightily to the American political fabric. Birney was a southern-born politician at the heart of the antislavery movement, with two southern-born sons who were major generals involved in key Union Army activities, including the leadership of the black troops. The interaction of the Birneys with historical figures (Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Clay) highlights the significance of the family’s activities in politics and war. D. Laurence Rogers offers a unique historiography of the abolition movement, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the experiences of one family navigating momentous developments from the founding of the Republic until the late 19th century.
|Publisher:||Michigan State University Press|
|Edition description:||1st Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
D. Laurence Rogers is a freelance journalist and historian who has received awards from the American Political Science Association, the Associated Press, and United Press International. He is the author and editor of several books on Michigan’s history and is deeply involved in its historic preservation.
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APOSTLES OF EQUALITYThe Birneys, the Republicans, and the Civil War
By D. Laurence Rogers
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 2011 D. Laurence Rogers
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRising immigrant tides
The Effect of this kind of Civil Society seems only to be, the depressing Multitudes below the Savage State that a few may be rais'd above it. —BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, ON IRELAND
Young James Birney of Cootehill, County Cavan, Ireland, may have been affected by conditions Benjamin Franklin saw on a visit to Ireland in 1771, when Birney was a four-year-old still in knee pants. The sage of the American colonies wrote his impressions: "I have lately made a Tour thro' Ireland and Scotland. In these Countries a small Part of the society are landlords, great Noblemen and Gentlemen, extreamly opulent, living in the highest Affluence and Magnificence: the Bulk of the people tenants, extreamly poor, living in the most sordid Wretchedness in dirty Hovels of Mud and Straw, and cloathed only in Rags." Franklin wrote about his fears that Britain's continued exploitation of the American colonies might soon leave them in decay and poverty much like Ireland. Perhaps the corruption and injustice that pervaded their country gave motivation to sixteen-year-old Birney and thousands of other Irish to immigrate to America. But America had its own form of corruption and inhumanity—slavery—and Franklin's Philadelphia personified it despite being the vortex of the successful revolution and separation from Britain that proclaimed freedom and justice for all.
As his reeking ship jammed with refugees from Dublin docked in Philadelphia in 1783 after a tortuous two-month journey, the ruddy-faced Irish immigrant Birney could scarcely avoid seeing the slave ships with African human cargo also arriving at the quay. Cries of the hapless captives were not as loud as they might have been, since the weak and ill had been jettisoned at sea, drowned alive like so many rotting fish. Even the ships from Ireland were known as "coffin ships" because of their cramped and disease-ridden quarters. As Birney debarked in America, free to start his new life, the African coffles were auctioned in Philadelphia and condemned to lives of involuntary servitude, most in the South. That would be the main pattern of the mass crime of slavery that continued over two centuries: the North would import the captives from Africa and profit from their transportation, retaining some slaves, and the south would purchase a labor force to do the arduous hand cultivation required to produce agricultural bounty. The financial elites in both the North and south sections of the country were enriched as a result of such an evil collaboration. The ingrained system became impossible to stop, and no American presidential candidate, except— eventually— the son of the Irish immigrant who landed in Philadelphia in 1783, ultimately had the courage to say, "Halt! these are our fellow humans, and our nation is violating God's law!"
The Irish James Birney, first of a long line of Birneys with the same proper name, was among the waves of immigrants that began washing up on the shores of America at the start of the eighteenth century. It was the dawn of a new nation that promised freedom for all in its Declaration of independence. Word had flashed around the world that the new land welcomed settlers. After voyages during which they were jammed elbow-to-elbow on pitching seas, in rickety two-masted schooners, braving disease and ocean disaster, the Irish immigrants were as happy to see their adopted land as they were to wiggle out from under the crushing English boot. Birney came to America too late to fight in the revolution that was at its end in 1783, but was on hand for the economic boom that followed.
As Birney senior began his five years in Philadelphia, he was surrounded by slaves who were forced to work for nothing. The ambitious young immigrant was more intent on making his fortune in the New World than getting too much involved in the politics of the early republic. His innate intelligence and neat handwriting won Birney a job clerking in a wholesale and retail dry goods store. The fact of his employment at such a position perhaps indicated his higher class and some education, since many unskilled Irish were forced to work at low wages if they could get past the "No Irish Need Apply" signs on most establishments. Besides, being a protestant, he didn't face the inherent prejudice most Irish Catholic immigrants faced in an anti-papist environment.
Philadelphia presented a dramatic dichotomy: while it was a thriving center of the slave trade, it also was the wellspring of freedom and abolition. Some ships arriving carried groaning human cargoes, those who survived the wracking Atlantic voyages often sick and helpless, chained in fetid holds like animals. About 15 percent of slaves died before they reached America. Powerful, warlike African native chiefs sold their own people and captives as well to European, Caribbean, and North American traders with vessels specially designed to hold humans packed together below decks inhumanely. The Atlantic ocean region linked European and euro-American interests leading to the development of modern capitalism, according to Aaron Fogelman, of Northern Illinois University. the world was made aware of the horrors of the slave trade as early as 1791 when a young African, Olaudah Equiano, told of being kidnapped at age eleven from his village in present-day Nigeria. Equiano documented the horrors of the "Middle passage" in an autobiography published in New York, telling of fellow captives preferring death to slavery and jumping, chained, into the sea. The sensational book went through nine editions and was used by early abolitionists to make their case against the practice that had become an important part of the American economy. "African slavery could be brutal, but seldom did African masters hold life and death power over their slaves," say James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, noting that slavery in America was "ultimately a more devastating institution than that known in Africa."
Also, the slave trade was used as a tool for spreading Christianity and Islam. Slavery in Muslim Mali dated to the fourteenth century. Pope Alexander VI granted Portugal the right to conquer land and enslave Africans from the Azores to West Africa. Six nations most responsible for using the Atlantic slave trade to foster economic interests were said to be Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Britain, and the united states. These nations used slave labor to plant and harvest sugar, tobacco, cotton, and indigo and to mine precious metals. Key figures in the Atlantic slave trade were prince Henry the Navigator, of Portugal; Christopher Columbus, the Italian navigator, who brought five hundred Native American slaves on his second voyage from the Americas; and sir John Hawkins of England, who was knighted in 1562 by queen Elizabeth I for his pioneering slaving success in Sierra L.
Although the plantations of the American south were the main markets and users of slaves, the North gained perhaps the greatest profits from the trade. Boston; New York; Newport, Rhode island; Perth Amboy, New Jersey; and other Atlantic ports were the most active U.S. slave-trading centers, with Philadelphia close behind. Historian Hugh Thomas asserts that on the eve of the Revolution, the slave trade "formed the very basis of the economic life of New England." Even after slavery was outlawed in the North, vessels from New England continued to carry cargoes of Africans to the American south. Some 156,000 slaves were brought to the united states between 1801 and 1808, almost all carried on ships that had sailed from New England ports where slavery recently had been outlawed. Nor was the U.S. government innocent in the abhorrent traffic. "Long after the U.S. slave trade officially ended, the more extensive movement of Africans to Brazil and Cuba continued," historian Douglas Harper writes. "The U.S. Navy never was assiduous in hunting down slave traders. The much larger British Navy was more aggressive, and it attempted a blockade of the slave coast of Africa, but the U.S. was one of the few nations that did not permit British patrols to search its vessels, so slave traders continuing to bring human cargo to Brazil and Cuba generally did so under the U.S. flag. They also did so in ships built for the purpose by Northern shipyards, in ventures financed by Northern manufacturers." Harper goes on to say:
Slavery in the North never approached the numbers of the south. It was, numerically, a drop in the bucket compared to the south. But the south, comparatively, was itself a drop in the bucket of New World slavery. Roughly a million slaves were brought from Africa to the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese before the first handful reached Virginia. Some 500,000 slaves were brought to the united states (or the colonies it was built from) in the history of the slave trade, which is a mere fraction of the estimated 10 million Africans forced to the Americas during that period. Every New World colony was, in some sense, a slave colony. French Canada, Massachusetts, Rhode island, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Cuba, Brazil— all of them made their start in an economic system built upon slavery based on race. In all of them, slavery enjoyed the service of the law and the sanction of religion. In all of them the master class had its moments of doubt, and the slaves plotted to escape or rebel.
"The effects of the New England slave trade were momentous. It was one of the foundations of New England's economic structure; it created a wealthy class of slave-trading merchants, while the profits derived from this commerce stimulated cultural development and philanthropy," observes Thomas.
All of the original thirteen U.S. colonies had slaves, and slavery was legal for two hundred years in the nation. Slavery was given official sanction in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention of the united states in Philadelphia. A federal fugitive slave law was the main enforcement tool of what became known as "the peculiar practice"—slavery. South Carolina delegates pierce Butler and Charles Pinckney inserted a clause in the Constitution that prevented slaves from gaining freedom by escaping into states where slavery was not legal. The government was obliged to deliver up escaped slaves like convicts, or, as Connecticut's Roger Sherman observed, like horses. Delegates wrangled over the future of slavery but by 1808 finally agreed that the united states would cease its transatlantic slave trade. After that date American vessels no longer traveled to Africa to seek human cargo but continued a domestic "coastwise" slave trade between U.S. ports. Although an act passed on 2 March 1807 prohibited slave trading in the united states, an exemption allowed the coastwise trade. Vessels over 40 tons were allowed to transport slaves if duplicate manifests were made describing each Negro. strangely, vessels under 40 tons carrying slaves were subject to a fine of $800 per slave. Historian J. C. Furnas observed how slaveholders began early to protect their labor source: "Congress agreed to join Britain in suppressing the brutal and cunning slave trade, but southern influence hamstrung the navy when it came to enforcing the law."
Rebecca Yamin, a contemporary researcher on the status of slavery in early Philadelphia, found by examining tax records, constables' household censuses, and other records that about one of every twelve Philadelphians on the eve of the American Revolution was enslaved, and about one of every five white households contained slaves. Deborah and Benjamin Franklin, therefore, were not unusual in owning human property in pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia. George and Martha Washington owned more than one hundred slaves at Mount Vernon and also reportedly owned eight or nine slaves while they lived in Philadelphia from 1790 to 1800 and attempted to conceal the slaves with a hidden passageway into their house.
Because of the visibility of slavery's horrors and injustice, people of principle took active notice, and the abolition movement took root and flourished in centers of trafficking, especially Philadelphia. As the world's model democratic republic emerged, slavery inevitably would be affected. "Before the American Revolution, slavery was not a problem; after the American Revolution there was never a time it was not a problem," commented Harvard's Bernard Bailyn. Aaron Fogelman is even more emphatic when he says, "the most important thing the American Revolution did for slavery was to end it." Of course the Revolution only started the process of recognition of human rights, and the end did not come for eight decades and until a terrible war was needed to write its epitaph.
Nearly half of all those enslaved were transported to the New World from 1700 to 1808 by British and American slave ships. Author Marcus Rediker states, "We know that the slave ship was the instrument of history's greatest forced migration." Even though he was "outraged" by the "dark and disturbing story" during his research, Rediker called the slave ship an instrument of globalization, vital to Europe's development and conquest and the growth of capitalism through development of plantations and, ultimately, empires. "The greatest accumulation of wealth the world had seen was not possible without the slave ships," writes Rediker. The experience with slavery in New England was even more dramatic and ironic than that of Philadelphia. Although New England was important in the abolition movement, more than one thousand slaving voyages left Rhode island ports alone, returning with more than one hundred thousand slaves. Prestigious ivy league Brown University only recently acknowledged that its Brown family cofounders funded the university with money earned by trading and exploiting African slaves. However, one of four brothers, Moses Brown, notably became active in the abolitionist movement and opposed his own brothers in a lawsuit against the practice.
In the aptly named Congo square, at the heart of Philadelphia, slaves were auctioned, bartered, and condemned to lives of misery while at the London Coffee House at front and Market streets, pipe-smoking burghers sipped coffee, chatted about local politics, and bemusedly watched the spectacle. In the peak year of 1762, about five hundred African slaves were imported to Philadelphia. Later, scotch Irish and German immigrants dominated the arrivals, and the traffic from Africa slowed. After the Gradual emancipation Act of 1780, public slave sales were not as frequent, but in 1810 the Negro population of Philadelphia exceeded ten thousand, about 10 percent of the city's total.
Even though the slave trade was part of America's economic lifeblood, Philadelphia's Quaker community joined with free Negroes to establish a resistance network headed by the free African society and Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church that coordinated with antislavery organizations and Vigilant Committees to help the enslaved. The Quaker sect, formally called the Religious society of friends, had embraced equal rights for women, religious minorities, and racial minorities since the 1640s when it was founded in England. However, Quaker settlers so desperate for labor to clear land suppressed their moral objections and quickly purchased the first 150 African slaves imported by the British into Philadelphia in 1684.
Philadelphia, only fifteen miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, became a hub of abolitionist defiance. While other states were debating slavery, free Africans and Quakers were influencing local opinion. "The city would lead the world in anti-slavery activities, taking their protest to London and igniting the British abolitionist movement," says historian Rodney Stark. However, America would lag behind Britain in abolishing slavery, because its slave owners had more centralized political power than possessed by British masters in the East Indies and other remote slave-populated colonies. Thus, a Briton, William Wilberforce, rather than an American, as should have been the case, became the recognized pioneer of the world antislavery movement.
Why James Birney Sr. left his family's comfortable home in the Irish village of Cootehill and came to Philadelphia remains a mystery. His father, John Birney, was a prosperous farmer and miller, a church vestryman, and a magistrate who was influential in local government. Rumors were that the son's leaving had something to do with the arrival in Ireland of some of Lord Cornwallis's British Royal troops after their defeat by the colonials under Gen. George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 The Birneys
1 Rising Immigrant Tides 3
2 Birthing Kentucky and a Birney 13
3 Roots of the Conflict over Slavery 31
4 Trapped in the Golden Circle 49
5 Defending die Cherokee, Launching Abolition 65
6 The Colonization Debacle 73
7 Birneys Epiphany 81
8 Saving the South from Destruction 95
9 The Tar and Feathers Agenda 107
Part 2 The Republicans
10 Lincoln's Prophet 121
11 Henry Clay's Nemesis 135
12 Uncle Tom Comes Alive 145
13 Michigan's "Wonderful Revolution" 153
14 Flight to Eagleswood 169
15 The Republican Phenomenon 175
Part 3 The civil war
16 The Birneys in Battle 195
17 The U.S. Colored Troops Tip the Balance 211
18 Appomattox Sundays 223
Appendix 1 Birneys Writings 253
Appendix 2 First Republican Platform 257
Bibliographic Essay 291