James Birney was an abolitionist opponent of slavery in the years before the American Civil War. Birney was born on February 4, 1792, in Danville, Kentucky. His parents were wealthy slave owners, but like a number of other slaveholders in the Upper South, they believed that it was only a matter of time before slavery would end. Some of these people were morally opposed to slavery, believed that it was un-Christian and un-American to own another person. Other slave owners believed that slave labor was becoming too expensive. Birney shared his parents' views. He attended several schools, including Transylvania College and the Priestly Seminary at Danville. Birney graduated from Princeton University in 1810, and he began to study for a legal career in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1814, he opened a law practice in Danville. Birney became a slave owner in 1816, when he married and received the slaves as a wedding gift. In 1818, Birney moved his family to a plantation near Huntsville, Alabama. He became involved in politics and served as a member of Alabama's constitutional convention. He also became a member of the Alabama legislature. His political career suffered when he became an outspoken opponent of Andrew Jackson and called for his fellow slave owners to support the gradual end of slavery. In 1833, Birney moved his family back to his ancestral home in Kentucky. Birney was rarely at home, as he lectured across the South, calling for the gradual end to slavery and the colonization of the former slaves in Africa. He realized that gradual emancipation was not a practical way to end slavery. He began to endorse the immediate end of slavery and freed his own slaves in June 1834. At the same time, he also began to publish an anti-slavery paper in Danville. Residents favoring slavery threatened Birney's publisher. The publisher fled the community, and no other publishers were willing to assist him. Birney moved his family to Cincinnati, Ohio, in October 1835. On January 1, 1836, Birney began publication of a new paper, The Philanthropist, which called for the immediate end to slavery and equal rights for African Americans with whites. Many Cincinnatians opposed Birney's views. Some of these people were former slave owners and believed that African Americans were inferior to whites. Other people opposed slavery but believed African Americans would move to the North and deprive white people of jobs. On January 22, 1836, a group of white Cincinnatians urged the city government to prohibit Birney from publishing his paper. Birney was undaunted. To prevent Birney from printing, a mob of white Cincinnatians destroyed the newspaper's printing press on July 12, 1836. Undeterred, Birney remained in Cincinnati and continued to publish his newspaper. The mob returned on July 30, 1836, and destroyed the printing press again. Birney resumed publication of The Philanthropist in September 1836, and he continued to publish it in Cincinnati. In 1847, he moved the paper to Washington, DC, and renamed it the National Era.
James G. Birney was one of the founders of Bay City and a trustee of the reorganized Saginaw Bay Company that did the land development for the town. The historical archives in Ohio have much information on him but seem to be unaware of his time in Michigan. I regard Birney as our most distinguished resident and a man deserving much more study.