A new book, “Apostles of Equality: The Birneys, the Republicans and the Civil War,” traces the abolitionism of one the leading early antislavery politicians, James Gillespie Birney (1792-1857), a Danville native, to the spirit of freedom inherent in his Irish heritage. After years of indecision, Birney became an advocate of immediate emancipation and chipped away at slavery with religious and patriotic fervor.
As a state legislator in Kentucky and Alabama, Birney won state constitutional provisions ameliorating slavery. The Alabama Legislature began, under Birney’s influence, a process of voluntarily freeing a small number of slaves each year throughout the 1820s and 1830s.
“After the Nat Turner slave uprising in Virginia in 1831, and slave revolts in the Caribbean, the atmosphere changed and slave laws were tightened,” said the author, D. Laurence Rogers. “From then until the Civil War, as one of James G. Birney’s sons, former Union Maj. Gen. William Birney, noted in an 1890 book, fear of servile insurrections drove Southern attitudes preparing the population for a more terrible conflict than any could have imagined.”
Four of Birney’s sons and a grandson served the Union and three sons died of disease during the war. The legacy of the Birneys lives on in the 14th Amendment, which codified the concepts of due process and equal justice and is said by some scholars to have led to the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision of 1954 resulting in desegregation of schools across the country.