Sunday, February 10, 2013
Just Finished Reading - Apostles of Equality
D. Laurence Rogers, a journalist and Michigan historian, tells Birney's biography - and with it America's story. He shows that both transformed from being proslavery to opposing the institution. As we all know, that evolution was one that was full of obstacles and pitfalls; much like Birney's life.
Birney was born in Danville, Kentucky, in 1792 and grew up in slaveholding household. His father owned a profitable hemp plantation that provided Birney the opportunity to have an excellent education at Transylvania University and later Princeton.
After Princeton, Birney returned to Danville and practiced law, then like so many others of that era, went into politics. He landed a seat in the Kentucky legislature at 24. In 1818 though he moved his family to a cotton plantation in Madison County, Alabama. Birney's career as planter was short lived and he soon went back to life as an attorney, practicing in Huntsville, Alabama, where he was also elected mayor, and served the Alabama legislature.
While in Alabama, Birney became convinced that colonization was the best alternative to dealing with the growing slavery controversy that was troubling the country. Birney decided to move back to Danville in 1832. Back in Kentucky he transformed from colonizationist to gradual emancipationist. Still unconvinced with the progress of emancipation he freed his remaining slaves in 1834 and declared himself an abolitionist. Efforts to start an antislavery newspaper in Kentucky in 1835 was thwarted though and Birney moved Cincinnati, Ohio. He moved yet again, this time to New York in 1837 to work for the American Antislavery Society.
In 1840 Birney ran for president on the antislavery Liberty Party ballot. He ran again in 1844 and has gone down in history as costing Henry Clay the vital votes he needed, and thus lost to James K. Polk. Birney, seemingly ever on the move, transplanted again in 1847 to Michigan. He remained in Michigan until 1855 when he moved to New Jersey where he died in 1857.
Rogers contends, and I agree, that Birney's politics and his run for president as Liberty Party candidate paved the way for the later Free Soil Party. And the Free Soil Party saw the later emergence of the Republican Party, which originated in 1854 as party against slavery's expansion.
While I truly enjoyed reading Apostles of Equality I was discouraged to find so many factual errors included throughout the book. Early (page 33) Rogers seemed to get confused about Humphrey Marshall (1760-1841) who fought a duel with Henry Clay in 1809 with Marshall's grandson, also Humphrey (1812-1872), who became a Confederate general in the Civil War. How Rogers could have thought that someone old enough to fight a duel in 1809 could have still fought 50 years later in the Civil War is difficult for me to understand. And that certainly was not the only error. On page 39 he states that the Liberator newspaper began publishing in 1830, William Lloyd Garrison's paper actually started the next year, 1831. On the same page he claims that the Denmark Vesey conspiracy happened in 1821, it was 1822. On page 179 he claims that John Wilkes Booth was captured and killed in Maryland, but that actually happened in Caroline County, Virginia. On page 189, Rogers states that John Brown dedicated himself to antislavery at the funeral of Elijah Lovejoy in 1836. Lovejoy was actually killed in 1837 and while John Brown did dedicate himself to the elimination of slavery upon the occasion of Lovejoy's death, Brown was not in attendance at Lovejoy's actual funeral. On page 199 the author claimed that Preston Brooks, the famous caner of Charles Sumner hailed from Georgia; he was from South Carolina. All of these mistakes are fairly minor and probably would be overlooked by most readers, but to those of us who know better these errors make one wonder if there are others that I missed and thus causes the book to lose some credibility in my eyes.
Apostles of Equality doesn't end with James G. Birney's life. Thankfully Rogers also covers the careers of Birney's sons, four of which (and a grandson) served in the Union army. Two of his sons carried on their father's abolitionist mission by commanding United States Colored Troops.
I would rate Apostles of Equality higher if those errors I mentioned above had been caught by proofreaders or the publishing editor. However, it is still an enjoyable book on a too-long ignored personality that needed covered. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.