Sunday, February 10, 2013

Just Finished Reading - Apostles of Equality

I was thrilled to see a book finally come out that covered the remarkable career of James G. Birney. Birney's evolution from slaveholder to colonization proponent to emancipationist to abolitionist is one of the amazing stories of the nineteenth century and one that has been overlooked for too long in scholarship.

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.


  1. Hi, Tim. Thanks for your review and corrections, especially about Humphrey Marshall. The Humphrey Marshalls are about as confusing as the many James Birneys. Re John Brown, PBS says Brown stood at Lovejoy's funeral and dedicated his life to ending slavery.
    If you have another source I would love to hear from you.
    --D. Laurence (Dave) Rogers,

  2. While I enjoy their work as much as anyone, I am not sure that PBS is the most credible source to cite.

    In Robert E. McGlone's John Brown's War Against Slavery (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009) on page 67 he notes that Brown and his father Owen attended a meeting at the Hudson [Ohio] Congregational Church protesting the death of Lovejoy, and there Brown said "I pledge myself with God's help that I will devote my life to increasing hostility towards slavery."

    In Merrill D. Peterson's John Brown: The Legend Revisited (Univ. of Virginia Press, 2002) on page 57, he states, "In Hudson, remembered in history as 'a rabid abolition town,' a meeting was called at the Congregation Church to denounce the atrocity [Lovejoy's death]. Among the speakers was Owen Brown, fighting his habitual stammer. As the meeting drew to a close, his son John arose from the back bench, according to a common report, raised his right hand and declared. . . ."

    In Brian McGinty's John Brown's Trial (Harvard Univ. Press, 2009)on page 33, he writes, "Brown was horrified when he learned in 1837 that Elijah Lovejoy, publisher of an abolitionist newspaper in Alton, Illinois, had been murdered by a proslavery mob, which also wrecked his newspaper office and sunk his printing press in the Mississippi River. The following Sunday, Brown rose in his church and, according to the recollection of two of his neighbors announced to the congregation . . . ."

    In David S. Reynolds's John Brown Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War and Seeded Civil Rights (Alfred Knopf, 2005), he states on pages 64 and 65 that Brown and his father were at the meeting house in Hudson when he made his pledge. "John Brown heard of the incident at a prayer meeting led in Hudson by Laurens P. Hitchcock, an antislavery professor of theology at Western Reserve College. Hitchcock had already conducted a memorial meeting for Lovejoy at his college; it was the second meeting, held in the town's Congregational church, that John Brown and his father attended."

    Finally, in what is considered by many as the most authoritative biography of Brown, To Purge this Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown by Stephen B. Oates on page 41 states, "Brown was back in Hudson, trying to find his way out of the financial nightmare brought on by the Panic of 1837, when news came of a shocking incident in Illinois. On November 7, at a town called Alton on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, an antislavery newspaperman named Elijah Lovejoy had been murdered by a proslavery mob from Missouri. . . .In Hudson, Laurens P Hickock, professor of theology at Western Reserve College and an outspoken abolitionist, summoned a prayer meeting in the Congregational Church to commemorate Lovejoy's martyrdom."

    All sources I have found show that it was at the Congregational Church service in Hudson, Ohio that Brown made his pledge to destroy slavery.


  3. Historians have missed, or chose to ignore, the fact that the Civil War lasted one day longer than necessary, resulting in 600 casualties. Apostles of Equality: The Birneys, the Republicans and the Civil War, documents the events of April 8, 1864 and the activities of Maj. Gen. William Birney and black troops as the war neared its end at Appomattox, Virginia.