John Holker papers  1770-1872
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The James G. Birney papers contain the personal, political, and professional letters of James Birney, a Kentucky slaveholder, Alabama politician, anti-slavery activist, and United States presidential candidate. The collection is particularly strong in Birney's political activities with the American Colonization Society, the American Anti-Slavery Society, and the Liberty Party; his role as an abolitionist writer and as the founder and editor of The Philanthropist; and his personal communications with his family and friends.

The Correspondence series (1908 items) is comprised of Birney's incoming letters, which span his entire career after 1818, with particularly full correspondence for the decade 1834-1844. Also present are 137 drafts of letters written by Birney. Birney corresponded with a wide variety of public figures in politics and in the anti-slavery movement in America and Great Britain, such as Gamaliel Bailey, Guy Beckley, James Buchanan, Theodore Foster, Seth Merrill Gates, William Goodell, Beriah Green, Ralph Randolph Gurley, Joshua Leavitt, Henry Brewster Stanton, Arthur Tappan, Lewis Tappan, Theodore D. Weld, Elizur Wright, Jr., and John Clark Young, among many others. In addition to business and political communications, the collection contains family and personal letters, including items to and from Birney's wife Agatha, his father James Birney, his father-in-law William MacDowell, and his siblings, children (particularly James, Jr., William, Dion, and David), and friends.

From 1818-1832, Birney was a lawyer and politician in Alabama, and a trustee of both Greene Academy in Huntsville and the University of Alabama. Much of the material from this period concerns personal and family news, and his nascent interest in anti-slavery. Birney received letters from many prominent Alabama politicians in Washington, including Clement Comer Clay, John McKinley, and Harry I. Thornton.

Of note:

  • February 12, 1827: From John McKinley on establishing a branch of the United States Bank in Nashville instead of Huntsville, Tennessee
  • December 12, 1825: From Philip Lindsley containing the collection's first mention of the American Colonization Society (hereafter ACS), concerning founding a chapter in the South
  • December 25, 1828: From Birney's uncle, Thomas B. Reed, on running for the United States Senate
  • March 6, 1830: From Lucinda M. Bradshear to her sister Agatha Birney discussing family and social news
  • January 9, 1832: Permission from the ACS giving Birney credit to put toward the "African Repository"
  • January 24, 1832: From Clement Comer Clay concerning a meeting in Washington on temperance and "improving the morals of society"

Between 1832 and 1834, Birney served as southern agent for the ACS. Letters from this period reveal Birney's changing views on slavery, as well as his personal struggles as an abolitionist in the south. Birney communicated with his fellow ACS agents, society leaders, and the Washington office, including 10 letters from ACS Secretary Ralph Randolph Gurley between 1832 and 1833. Many letters deal with sending former slaves to Liberia, such as Cyrus Chinn and his family (November 1, 1832); Elijah and Benjamin Collier from St. Louis, Missouri (November 12, 1832); a group of 80 African Americans from Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, and Mississippi (February 7, 1832); and Allen Bates and 15 others (March 10, 1833).

Of note:

  • June 12, 1832: From the ACS appointing Birney an official agent for the society in the southern and western states
  • July 7, 1832: Birney’s official appointment as ACS agent, accompanied by a list of "Things which Should be done to aid the Cause"
  • November 1, 1832: From Henry Sheffie Geyer regarding recruiting freed men and their families for emigration to Africa and inquiries into the creation of more local societies in the South
  • April 24, 1833: From Birney to his wife Agatha regarding the death of two of their young children
  • August 26, 1833: From Nathan Green who voiced abolitionist arguments against the ACS's mission

Though no longer a member of the ACS, Birney remained active in the abolitionist cause between 1834 and 1839, during which time he founded The Philanthropist and joined the American Anti-Slavery Society. Many of the 1836 letters relate to printing The Philanthropist, and contain details on funding, publication, and subscriptions, along with moral support from Birney's peers. During this time, Birney also maintained a close communication with Theodore Dwight Weld and Elizur Wright, Jr. Topics covered include Birney's anti-slavery speaking tour through several northern states, the growing divisions within the American Anti-Slavery Society, his relations with his family, and the death of his wife Agatha. A highlight of the collection is a letter from a slave named Milo Thompson, owned by Major George C. Thompson, to his fiancée Louisa Bethley, owned by James Birney, Sr., concerning their continued separation (October 15, 1834). Days later, Major Thompson wrote to James G. Birney explaining that he was uncomfortable with the situation and that hoped to purchase Louisa Bethley from his father so they could marry (October 18, 1834).

Other items of note:

  • September 15, 1834: A note from Henry Clay concerning a discussion on emancipation
  • December 13, 1834: From Robert Hutchinson Rose, of Silver Lake, Pennsylvania, concerning the character of slaveholders and the practice of slaves earning their freedom
  • January 6, 1835: From John Jones regarding the problems with giving blacks rights
  • January-April 1835: Four letters between Birney and Peter Vanarsdall concerning local anxieties about the slavery question in Kentucky and the church's roll in the discussion
  • June 20, 1835: From William Jennings Bryan, containing the collection's first mention of The Philanthropist
  • August 1835: From Birney to subscribers of The Philanthropist discussing delays in publishing
  • March 27, 1836: Account of travel in Mexico
  • [July 1836]: A letter warning Birney that an organized band will tar and feather him if he returns to Kentucky
  • August 1, 1836: Commission from Arthur Tappan appointing Birney agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society
  • November 11, 1836: from Birney explaining that he prints The Philanthropist in a "country village" because no one in Cincinnati would print it for fear of reprisal
  • January 12 and 25, 1837: between Birney and John J. Marshal
  • May 1837: Longtime Alabama agent, Arthur Hopkins, severs ties with Birney and no longer collects claims from past land sales.
  • October 21, 1838: A joint letter from Birney's sons Dion and William reacting to the death of their mother
  • February 1839: Several letters discussing the division between the Boston and New York factions of the American Anti-Slavery Society
  • July 28, 1839: News from Birney's Sister Anna Marsh of their father's death
  • November 3, 1839: From William Birney discussing the life of a bachelor, doing housework, and hiring two hands to help him

The period from 1839-1845 represents the height of Birney’s involvement in politics. On November 13, 1839, a Liberty Party convention at Warsaw, New York, nominated Birney to run for president. The letters from 1840 are dominated by news of presidential politics, including discussions of rivals Henry Clay and William Henry Harrison. Birney, however, did not campaign and instead spent the time from May to November 1840 attending an international anti-slavery convention in Great Britain. He received only a small percentage of national votes. In the fall of 1841, Birney and his family moved to Michigan, where he maintained close communications with his friends, children, the Fitzhugh family (relatives of his second wife Elizabeth), and abolitionist colleagues in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, and throughout the South. Birney also received personal requests for assistance from those in need, such as the case of a Creek Indian mother named Susan, who had been sold into slavery with her children, and was attempting to sue for their freedom (March 8, 1843). The letters from 1844 concern Birney's second run as the Liberty Party's presidential candidate, and include frequent references to Henry Clay, James K. Polk, and the landscape of the race. Of particular interest is a group of letters, dating from the end of October through November, relating to the "Garland letter," a letter published in newspapers which falsely claimed that Birney was a secret Democrat trying to swing the election subversively

Also of note:

  • December 17, 1839: News from the Warsaw Abolitionist Convention that selected Birney to run for President of the Liberty Party
  • February 17, 1840: From Benjamin Fenn, inviting Birney on a stumping trip from Vermont to Arkansas to Maryland, and his views on Blacks in government
  • March 24, 1840: From Francis Julius Le Moyne who is concerned about splitting the anti-slavery vote
  • April 1, 1840: Draft of a letter to the Mexican legislature on the taking of Texas and abolition of slavery in Mexico
  • June 22, 1840: From the British Foreign Anti-Slavery Society
  • May 27, 1840: From the Ladies of New York City Anti-Slavery Society, electing Birney to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London
  • December 27, 1843: From Dr. Joseph P. Gazzam concerning mason and anti-mason political parties in Pittsburgh
  • January 1, 1844: From Reese C. Fleeson concerning presidential politics
  • March 30, 1844: Against the Annexation of Texas
  • April 13, 1844: From James Caleb Jackson informing Birney that he was chosen as the Liberty Party candidate for the upcoming presidential election
  • November 2, 1844: A discussion of the Garland letter and a newspaper clipping of the incriminating article

In the autumn of 1845, Birney fell off of a horse and suffered a severe injury which forced him to retire from public service. He continued, however, to write on political and constitutional issues and kept up broad correspondence with his anti-slavery colleagues (such as Gerrit Smith, William Goodell, Sarah Grimké, and Theodore Weld) and his family. He also kept in contact with Michigan Anti-Slavery Society activists. The period between his forced retirement and his death (1845-1857) also contains the most concentrated number of draft letters written by Birney. These reveal his political opinions, thoughts on religion, academic interests, and his life in Michigan and later New Jersey. The last letters, from 1856-1857, document the state of Birney's accounts and land holdings.

Of note:

  • September 17, 1845: From James Birney to his father regarding his accident
  • December 7, 1845: From Theodore Foster regarding an anti-slavery meeting in Marshal, Michigan
  • April 7, 1846: From the United States Attorney's Office
  • April 1, 1847: From William Goodell discussing Birney's limited role in the Liberty Party and future activities of the party
  • May 10, 1848: From Martha V. Ball: Address of the Massachusetts Female Emancipation Society
  • July 10, 1848: From Birney to Lewis Tappan, in which he declines the office of vice president for the Foreign Anti-Slavery Society
  • December 2, 1850: Concerning secession and abolitionism from the Union Safety Committee of the City of New York
  • June 1, 1852: A letter accompanied by a note from Frederick Douglass
  • June 1, 1852-January 12, 1853: Four letters between Birney and Leonard Woolsey Bacon, writing for Harriet Beecher Stowe, concerning Stowe's new book, "Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin," and her discussion of churches and slavery, and mentioning a violent attack on Stowe and her brother
  • January 1853: A printed circular from Frederick Douglass for subscribers for his paper
  • August 29, 1854: A letter to Frederick Douglass
  • August 30, 1854: From Sarah Grimké, discussing Weld's sickness, the shipment of Birney's luggage to New Jersey, and news from other friends

Only five letters post date Birney's death in 1757, all to or from his wife Elizabeth Birney and his daughter D. B. Birney, with the final item from George Clark of Oberlin to a Mr. Smith concerning studying under Henry Lloyd Garrison. The collection also contains eight undated letters, including six to Birney (one addressed to “Christianus," Birney's favorite pen name) and one letter to Florence Birney.

Many letters contain illustrated letterheads. Five items feature an image of a kneeling slave called, "A Colored Young Man of the City of New York, 1835," engraved by P. Reason: May 1, 1838 (invitation to Weld-Grimke wedding), June 1, 1840, August 15, 1840 ("Am I not a man and a brother"), December 4, 1840 (similar but different image), and January 2, 1841. Other items with illustrations include: June 10, 1839, containing a poem; April 26, 1847, depicting Astor House, New York; and June 28, 1853, depicting "Topsy, or the Slave girl's Appeal," along with a poem.

Dwight L. Dumond published many of Birney's letters related to abolition and anti-slavery in his book Letters of James Gillespie Birney, 1831-1857. See additional descriptive data for a full citation.

The Diaries and Journals series (3 items) contains volumes related to the American Colonization Society, to Birney's travels in Great Britain in 1840, and to Birney's gardens. The first item (8 pages) is entitled "Memorandum of Donations, Collections, Subscriptions, c&, c&, etc. for the American Colonization Society in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkinsas." It documents Birney's general accounts from June to December 1832, salary accounts for 1833, and general accounts for October 1833. The second item consists of brief entries during Birney's trip to England, Scotland, and Ireland from September to October 1840 (12 pages) and his meteorological observations for 1849 (30 pages). The third volume is a "Garden Memo" in which Birney recorded planting and harvesting details from November 1843 to July 1847.

The Speeches, Essays, Notes, and Other Writings series (74 items) contains Birney's non-correspondence manuscript writings. The series is organized into three subseries: Speeches, Essays, and Drafts (1833-1852); Speech Notes (1836-1841); and Miscellaneous Notes (1832-1852). The Speeches, Essays, and Drafts subseries (22 items) reveals Birney's thoughts on social reform and slavery in American society, politics, and history.

Speech and essay titles of note:

  • August 10, 1833: Colonization of the Free Colored People: Prospective Evil of the Free Colored People in the South
  • March 20, 1840: Committee in Temperance
  • [1847]: Presidential Nomination--Mr. Clay--Slavery
  • [1852]: To The People, concerning the president, congress, and habeas corpus
  • Undated: Angels Suggested by Arch. Bishop Whatley's Sections on "Good + Evil Angels"]
  • Undated: An address from the Independent Party concerning slavery
  • Undated: The point to be established in my reply to the foregoing note is the affirmative of the question--Is Slaveholding Sinful under all circumstances?
  • Undated: Proclamation to the Free People of Color

The Speech Notes subseries (38 items) is comprised of the notes and note cards that Birney used during speeches. Most of the notes relate to Christianity, slavery, and abolition. The dated speech notes are from 1836 to 1841, however, many items are undated.

The Miscellaneous Notes subseries (13 items) contains manuscript fragments of speeches, essays, and articles, including a copy of an essay from the Vermont Chronicle on the abolition of slavery in Mexico (March 3, 1832), a report of cruelty of a young slave copied from the New Orleans Bee (June 25, 1834), and two pledges to give up drinking (December 1842 and January 19, 1845).

The Financial Documents series (384 items) contains a plantation record book, bills and receipts for household expenditures, receipts for speaking engagements and other employment, tax records, estate records, and stock certificates. The plantation record book (139 pages) documents the 43 slaves working on Birney's father's plantation and the slave's cotton production from 1819 to 1821. Slave records include birth dates, previous owners, dates of purchase, buyers, dates of sale, prices, and deaths. The record book contains details on the following names: Tom, Billy Banks, Michael, Jesse, Ben, Sam, Hartwell, Jerry, Willis, Little Ben, Charles, Luke, Moses, Isham, Edwin, Wilson, George, Alfred, Henry, Charles, Anthony, William, Charles, Amy, Daphnie, Biddy, Hannah, Clara, Sarah, Kitty, Maria, Barbara, Mary, Margaret, Caroline, Betsey, Julianne, Viney, Silvia, Susan, Polly, Judy, and Lucy. The volume also contains records for the number of bales of cotton each slave picked in 1820 and 1821.

This series contains personal receipts and accounts from Birney's professional life:

  • 1834-1836: Kentucky, kept by Henry and Robert Chambers while Birney was living in Ohio.
  • 1837-1841: New York, including the sale of household furniture October 27, 1838-1841
  • 1842-1854: Michigan
  • 1854-1857: New Jersey
  • 1857-1860: Estate records

Also present are personal records for food, clothing, household goods, and medical assistance; certificates for shares of stocks; tax records concerning his land in Michigan; bundles of personal receipts from 1850, 1851, 1853, 1854; receipts for magazine subscriptions; payments for Birney's speaking engagements; and 19 undated items.

The Legal Documents series (123 items) consists primarily of deeds, leases, contracts, and sales of land in Kentucky, Alabama, New York, Michigan, and New Jersey, with the bulk of these related to land in Saginaw County, Michigan. This series also contains Birney's legal manumission papers for freeing his father's slaves (September 3, 1839).

Also of note:

  • August 6, 1835: a report from Danville, Kentucky, on a mob that threatened to use force against Birney and vandalize the office where he planned to print The Philanthropist
  • August 15, 1845: a copy of a document concerning the stockholders and the board of directors approving the purchase of land for the Saginaw Bay Company

The Genealogy series (11 items) is made up of various documents containing genealogical information primarily on Birney and his extended family. Included are: an item from William Birney to his cousin listing the decedents of Thomas Madison (April 3, 1882); a list of the birth and death dates of many members of the Birney family throughout the 19th century (undated); details on the births and deaths of Birney's children; and a report on the descendants of John J. Marshall and Anna Reed Birney (undated).

The Printed Material and Illustrations series (42 items) is composed of newspaper clippings, political broadsides, invitations to social events, and school report cards. Of note are a broadside entitled "Abolitionists Beware" (July 1836) and an 1852 broadside for the National Liberty Party. The collection holds 15 newspaper selections which contain articles by or about Birney.

Articles by Birney appear in the following newspapers:

  • The Olive Branch, Danville, Kentucky: July 25, 1835
  • National Intelligencer, Danville, Kentucky: March 15, 1840
  • Southern Advocate, Huntsville, Alabama: October 9, 1829; July 16, 23, 30, August 6, 20, 1833.
  • Southern Mercury, Huntsville, Alabama: July 10 and August 10, 1833
  • The Democrat, Huntsville, Alabama: April 16, 23, May 7, 1830; May 16, 1833

Also present are two clippings about Birney that post date his death: "No. 1 Abolitionist," Washington Post, October 30, 1938, and "Presidential Candidate," unknown source, February 38, 1937. Of the seven undated items, two are illustrations and the floor plan of a house, possibly in Bridgeport, Michigan. The collection also holds 27 broadsides, many integrated into the Correspondence series. For a complete list of broadsides see the additional descriptive data.

In addition to this finding aid, the Clements Library has created a Contributor List (.pdf format). For additional information see the Clements Library card catalog.

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