The Tracy Family History
James Gillespie Birney
Unknown today, James Birney was quite famous in his lifetime. On 13 Sept 1817, he married, in Danville, Kentucky, the beautiful and vivacious Agatha McDowell. Her family consisted of her Grandfather, Colonel Samuel McDowell, who was a commander at Kings Mountain, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and a member of the convention to send delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence, and he did other important things in his life.
Her father was US District Judge for Kentucky. Her mother was a cousin to James Madison. Her uncle was the famous surgeon, Ephraim McDowell.
Apparently, James was so likeable that Agatha’s parents overlooked the fact that he came from a strong Episcopalian family and allowed their equally strong Presbyterian family to join in union.
So pleased with the match were both sets of parents, that, as a wedding gift, both sides gave the young couple a present of slaves to start off their new married life. (This was the custom of the times for well-to-do families.)
And what was James Gillespie Birney’s claim to fame? He would become one of the nations' most famous and powerful abolitionists, a leader in the anti-slavery movement.
Born to aristocracy, he grew up within the world of slavery. The wedding provided him with only household slaves, for these were the customary wedding gifts. He was trained as a lawyer, but now decided to support himself by farming. This required more experienced slaves so he purchased 19 of them. His grandfather gave him 2. The McDowells provided 2 more. His father gave 10, and there was an increase in the slave families, which gave him an extra 11. All total, he owned 43 slaves. They were worth a fortune.
Like Washington and Jefferson, he would come to hate the institution of slavery, but required the system to maintain an aristocratic life style. This was his attitude even in Kentucky where slaves were treated more on a family basis. The whip was never used.
Birney, being Presbyterian, attended the elite (Presbyterian) College of New Jersey (Princeton). He eventually ends up in Alabama, a successful lawyer. In 1832, he makes his choice, gives up the wealth accumulated through the practice of law and gets into the anti-slavery movement big time... full time.
This would cost him his wealth and social position. He would be driven from place to place and nearly lose his life from pro-slavery mobs. He was a social outcast by our southern aristocratic families.
In 1834 he writes a letter to 110 anti-slavery societies. This letters shows two things: 1) The anti-slavery movement was quite large, but divided. 2) There was no one recognized leader.
The anti-slavery movement divides upon two philosophies. One is the moderate view, believing that change could be brought about by long-term social-legislative means. The other believed in a radical approach, confrontation, with an immediate end to slavery.
Birney is a leader in the gradual movement.
By 1837 he is known throughout the country and was in great demand as a lecturer.
He is one of the founders of a third political party, the Liberty Party. Under this banner he runs for the presidency in 1840. His attempt is hardly worth noticing as he only received 7,069 votes.
So well known was Birney by this time (1840) that he is named vice-president of the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.
However, his next run for president in 1844 would have a great impact on the election. In this election, Henry Clay receives 1,299,062 votes against James Polk’s 1,337,243. Birney comes in with a miserable 62,300. But, in New York, Birney gets 15,812 votes. In New York it is almost dead even between Clay and Polk. If Birney had not run, his votes would have gone to Clay and given Clay the presidency. Instead, Polk is elected.
So rabid and powerful are the slave owners that they get a "Gag Rule" passed so that no one in Congress, in any way, shape, or form, could even discuss the issue of slavery. This is an 1839 cartoon that satirizes the "Gag Rule."
In 1837, in the family, now in Ohio, their
maid has a secret. She is “octoroon,” a black able to pass as a white. She is
young, in her 20s, and a great beauty. Her other secret: She is a runaway slave.
This is unknown to the Birney family.
One day, while walking the street, a man recognizes her as a runaway slave. She is arrested. Birney has his friend, Salmon P. Chase, defend her at trial. The outcome of the trial is a foregone conclusion, as she has no case in law. However, it does generate quite a bit of publicity. (Birney is also tried for aiding an escaped slave, found guilty and fined $50.)
The maid is sent to New Orleans, where the great beauty is sold back into slavery. She then passes from history.
Salmon P. Chase becomes the powerful War Secretary under President Lincoln and later Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.
In time, Birney would have health problems, which would force him out of the movement. His days of fame were over. His medical problems would cause emotional difficulties. He became depressed and easily annoyed, quick to anger.
He had strokes, which caused him to lose his mighty voice, which had once moved a nation. Then there were heart attacks between strokes. He went from doctor to doctor, even tried bleeding, then electric treatments, which were the "high tech" of the day. He self-treated by dousing himself with a bucket of cold water every day. When that didn’t work he went to a spiritualist who advised him to leave her a lock of his hair along with $10.
James Gillespie Birney would die in 1857, not living to see the radicals win the movement and take the nation into a Civil War..., which found our families on both sides.
There have been three books written about our famous abolitionists cousin. I have read only one, which I can highly recommend. It is James Gillespie Birney, Slaveholder to Abolitionists, by Betty Fladeland, 1955. She is a retired professor from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale Campus.
There is an actor named Reed McDowell Birney (All three are our family names.) His credits are from the McDowell House 200th Anniversary pamphlet.
Reed McDowell Birney: Reed McDowell Birney has been an actor in New York for 28 years, and he has played everything from Simon in Noel Coward's Hay Fever opposite Joanne Woodward to Lee Harvey Oswald. He made his Broadway debut in 1978 in the original cast of Albert Innaurato's long running hit Gemini. He has worked extensively in regional theaters across the country and created roles in many world premieres by playwrights ranging from Neil Simon and Arthur Laurents to Jules Feiffer. On television he kidnapped Linda Dano for thirteen weeks on the soap opera Another World and has appeared on all three Law and Order shows. He has had leading roles in the miniseries of Jeffrey Archer's Kane and Abel, HBO's Tales from the Crypt and the award-winning The Earth To The Moon. Film credits include leading roles in Arthur Penn's Four Friends and Sam Raimi's Crimewave, as well as numerous independent films. Most importantly, he is a McDowell descendant through Ephraim's brother, William.
He portrayed the role of Dr. Ephraim McDowell at the McDowell House Museum for its 200th anniversary.
He must be proud of his heritage...as we are also.
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