Historical Marker #36 in Danville, Kentucky, notes the birthplace of abolitionist and nineteenth-century presidential candidate, James Gillespie Birney.
Birney was born in Danville in 1792 to a slaveholding family. As a young man he was educated at Princeton and studied law in Philadelphia. Upon his return to Kentucky in 1814, Birney began a law practice that, two years later, led him into politics and a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives. His stay in Kentucky politics proved to be short; in 1818, Birney moved his family to northern Alabama in order to pursue the life of a cotton planter and politician.
Beset by crop failures and gambling misfortunes, Birney proved to be an unsuccessful planter. Therefore, he sold his plantation and many of his slaves and opened a law office in Huntsville, Alabama. He soon became interested in colonizing slaves to Africa as an effort to eliminate the institution. He also lobbied the legislatures of Alabama and Kentucky for laws that limited slave importations. Birney advocated for emancipation and colonization, but with little success in representing the American Colonization Society in Alabama, he returned to Kentucky in 1833. At this time, Birney decided that slavery could best be eliminated not by colonization, but by immediate abolition. A year later, he freed his remaining slaves.
In the summer of 1835, Birney attempted to start an antislavery newspaper in Danville. When residents vehemently opposed this effort and threatened mob violence, he relocated his family to Cincinnati, where he began publishing "The Philanthropist" in 1836. This newspaper was published there until 1843.
In 1837, Birney moved to New York to work for the American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1840 and 1844, he ran as the Liberty Party's candidate for president on an anti-slavery platform. Birney received only a small portion of the votes in 1844, but his showing proved that there was a growing interest in anti-slavery politics in the North. Birney relocated to Michigan in the 1840s and, finally, to New Jersey, where he died in 1857.
Two of Birney's sons, William and David, became Union generals during the Civil War. William proudly continued in his father's abolitionist role as a commander of United States Colored Troops.