James G. Birney (1792-1857), lawyer and antislavery politician, was born in Danville, Kentucky, to a plantation owning family. He was educated at Princeton and studied law in Philadelphia at the office of Alexander J. Dallas. Birney became a successful lawyer in Huntsville, Alabama, and in 1819 was elected representative to the first General Assembly of Alabama, where he drafted and passed legislation prohibiting the importation of slaves into the state. Eventually, his humanitarian sympathies led him to abandon his law practice for a career in anti-slavery activism. In 1832, he became a southern agent for the American Colonization Society, but within a year he resigned, disillusioned with their scheme of gradual emancipation based on ideas of racial inferiority. Convinced of the importance of united action by all opponents of slavery, he moved to Cincinnati in 1836, and established the newspaper Philanthropist, one of the first anti-slavery papers in the Midwest.
The growth of Birney's influence in the anti-slavery movement is evident in his correspondence and pamphleteering, as well as in his active schedule of public lectures. He resigned as editor of The Philanthropist in 1837 and moved to New York to become the corresponding secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Disagreements with William Lloyd Garrison led to the society's formal division into Boston and New York factions. Birney saw the need for a new political party whose sole purpose was to promote the abolition of slavery, and with his leadership, the Liberty Party was founded in 1840. As its presidential candidate in 1840 and 1844, Birney argued that the Bible and the Constitution proscribed slavery. His 1844 candidacy drew enough votes away from Whig party candidate Henry Clay to throw the election to James K. Polk. Birney retired from public life after the election of 1844, although he continued to write occasional articles for the anti-slavery press.
Birney married Agatha McDowell in 1816; they had eleven children, six of whom survived early childhood (James, William, Dion, David, George, and Florence). After Agatha died in 1838, Birney married Elizabeth Fitzhugh of Geneseo, New York, in 1841. Of their three children, only Fitzhugh Birney survived to adulthood. Between presidential bids, Birney and his family moved to Lower Saginaw (now Bay City), Michigan. In 1841, Birney established a law practice and ran unsuccessfully for the Michigan governorship. He moved to New Jersey in 1852 and died there in 1857. See additional descriptive data for a biographical timeline.