Below is my first shot at a mini-review for the Books & Culture website. The book under consideration is R. Laurence Rogers, Apostles of Equality: The Birneys, the Republicans, and the Civil War.
How did the son of a wealthy Kentucky slaveholder become one of America’s most ardent anti-slavery activists and a two-time candidate for president? D. Laurence Rogers describes the ideological, moral, and political odyssey of James Gillespie Birney, one of American history’s most overlooked abolitionists. In the course of roughly twenty years, Birney went from a slaveholder, to an advocate for the colonization of slaves, to a supporter of gradual emancipation, to an immediate emancipationist. As the candidate of the anti-slavery Liberty Party in the 1844 presidential election, he garnered over 62,000 votes (2.3%) and probably cost Henry Clay, the Whig Party candidate from his home state of Kentucky, the presidency.
Birney is an ideal window into the changing landscape of antebellum anti-slavery. He held leadership posts in the American Colonization Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society. As the publisher of The Philanthropist, an abolitionist newspaper published in Kentucky and Cincinnati, he faced the violent wrath of southern pro-slavery forces. His belief that slavery was best brought to an end through political means, rather than “moral suasion,” led to his break with well-known abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his eventual nomination by the Liberty Party.
Rogers is particularly insightful in his efforts to connect the anti-slavery movement in the southeastern United States with the opposition to Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies. In 1826, while living in Alabama, Birney served as the legal counsel for the Cherokee’s efforts to protect ancestral lands from Jackson’s plan to send them off to “Indian Territory” (present-day Oklahoma). Birney’s intimate acquaintance with the injustice of the Cherokee removal would prompt him and other future abolitionists to work for the expansion of human rights to slaves. The connection makes sense, and it is one that several legal scholars and historians have affirmed.
Apostles of Equality offers a very informative interpretation of American anti-slavery and introduces us to an unjustly forgotten figure. A third-party politician who angered many traditional Whigs (after Henry Clay lost to James Polk in 1844, Horace Greeley, the Whig editor of the New York Tribune, ordered that Birney’s name never again appear in his paper) and fellow abolitionists (Garrison), Birney made powerful enemies, and his contributions to moral reform, Rogers writes, “became buried in historical irrelevance.” Until now.