William Birney and the Abolitionist Memory Wars
In the decades after the formal abolition of American chattel slavery in 1865, the peculiar institution proved to be a many-headed hydra. Even as the nation, in no small part due to the decades-long efforts of abolitionists, lopped off its head, new forms of racial oppression grew in its place. When I first began my research on the abolitionist movement, I expected to find veteran antislavery reformers and their descendants in the thick of this continued struggle. African American abolitionists, from Frederick Douglass to Mary Ann Shadd Cary, were certainly on the front lines. I discovered, however, that many white abolitionists and their descendants turned their attention away from contemporary struggles for racial justice, waging their wars instead in the past. The children of storied abolitionists engaged in a bitter struggle over the battlefield of historical memory, jostling to establish their own forebears as the leading lights of a totally triumphant antislavery movement. Seizing the lion’s share of credit for past victories—and thereby securing the adulation of posterity—became an all-consuming desire for these figures, pushing other concerns into the background.
In much of my work on the abolitionist memory wars, I have focused largely on one side of the struggle: the famed reformer William Lloyd Garrison and his friends and family, who pledged themselves to safeguarding the historical legacy of the paterfamilias at all costs. Garrison himself began the trend, retiring from abolitionism in 1865 and devoting his remaining years not to fighting postwar racial oppression—a situation that he dismissed as “comparatively trivial” relative to slavery times—but rather to policing the history books. Almost every participant in the abolitionist movement, including some latecomers and bandwagon supporters, wrote a memoir in the decades after the Civil War, explaining their own roles in the larger fight for emancipation. Garrison continually policed these competing narratives to ensure that he remained front and center as the chief protagonist of the emancipationist crusade—or, as he put it to one upstart author, that such accounts did not “leave Hamlet out of the play.” While Garrison never wrote down his own story, his sons and associates did, ensuring his place in the pantheon of national heroes.
Over the course of my residence at the Library of Congress as a J. Franklin Jameson Fellow, I was able to explore the writings of William Birney.
While I was well versed in the Garrison side of things, I had never delved much into the perspective of his main rivals in the abolitionist memory wars. Over the course of my residence at the Library of Congress as a J. Franklin Jameson Fellow, I was able to explore the writings of one such competitor, William Birney. A former Union general and abolitionist in his own right, Birney was the son of the antislavery activist James G. Birney. The elder Birney was once a close friend of Garrison, serving as a leading member of Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1840, however, Birney and other renegade abolitionists seceded from Garrison’s society over tactical differences, including their desire to form an abolitionist political party. Their resulting organization, the Liberty Party, ran Birney for president in 1840, incurring the lasting ire of the Garrison cadre.
At the library, I wanted to see if William Birney had become as wrapped up in memory as Garrison after the Civil War—if he too had succumbed to the temptations of immortality, or if he had instead focused on the emergence of new hydra heads like Jim Crow, disfranchisement, and lynching. Quickly, I found it to be the former. In his postwar years, Birney threw himself into a biography of his father. “It is to prevents history from becoming a number of falsehoods agreed upon that I feel it a duty to write,” he told an abolitionist friend in 1882. As became abundantly clear, the chief falsehood he had in mind was that Garrison, rather than his own father, had led the successful charge against slavery. “Garrison and associate cranks are running off with all the honors,” he complained to the same friend. The elder Birney was being “left out in the cold,” damned by posterity to irrelevance.
To rectify the matter, and as he worked on his book, Birney wrote personal letters and articles sidelining the Garrison cadre in history—or, as he put it, “vindicat[ing] common sense in human affairs.” Garrison, he argued, had been a high-minded but ultimately useless idealist whose belief in disengagement from the corrupt political system clashed with the actual realities of effecting change. When Garrison partisans retorted in the press, Birney ramped up his attacks, going so far as to argue that Garrison had not only failed to be a major player in the overall fight against slavery, but had even been relegated to a minor role in his own American Anti-Slavery Society. In his private notes for his book, Birney revealed the extent to which defeating Garrison had become his personal obsession, scrawling in one aside that “Garrison, in his morbid vanity, always viewed himself in a picturesque light. Made great by connivance and conventional flattery.” His 1890 book, The Life and Times of James G. Birney, was no different, seemingly referencing Garrison in every other sentence in order to discredit him.
The writings of Birney and his opponents thereby underscore the extent to which the allure of historical homage consumed these combatants—and how the fight for racial justice became lost in the background as a result.
These memory wars spilled over into Birney’s personal life as well. In 1885, his wife Catherine wrote a biography of the abolitionist Grimké sisters. While the Grimkés had been part of the anti-Garrison faction before the Civil War, Catherine Birney astutely steered clear of any partisan infighting. Her husband nevertheless pleaded with a friend to read over her manuscript ahead of time, to make sure that there was nothing in it “to which the Garrisonians [would object].” Ultimately, his worries came to naught, as the Garrison cadre directed their fire at himself alone. In his waning years, Birney became fixated on parrying the blows of Garrison followers like Oliver Johnson, who wrote “screeds against him” in national publications. “All my time is occupied” with the struggle over “antislavery history,” he admitted to a friend.
The writings of Birney and his opponents thereby underscore the extent to which the allure of historical homage consumed these combatants—and how the fight for racial justice became lost in the background as a result. As Douglass and other black activists struggled against a rising tide—an oppressive hydra rearing its heads once again—their old allies were, by and large, nowhere to be found. The Birneys and Garrisons had chosen instead to live in the past.
Frank J. Cirillo earned a PhD in history from the University of Virginia in 2017 and was the 2018 recipient of the AHA’s J. Franklin Jameson Fellowship. He has also held fellowships from the New-York Historical Society, the New School, and the University of Virginia. His book project, The Abolitionist Civil War, examines the repercussions of abolitionist involvement in the Union war effort.
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