Friday, January 26, 2007

Birney v. State I: Birney and Matilda

The literature suggests that Salmon P. Chase first became known as an antislavery advocate through his association with future Liberty Party presidential candidate James G. Birney (pictured) in the late 1830s. I therefore thought I’d take a look at the case in which Chase successfully represented Birney against a charge that he had unlawfully harbored a fugitive slave, Birney v. State, 8 Ohio 230, 1837 WL 40 (Ohio 1837). In this post, I’ll set the stage.

Birney, a prominent antislavery advocate, moved from Kentucky to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1835 because he had been unable to locate a printer in the former state. In January 1836, he began publishing an antislavery journal, The Philanthropist. His activities generated a lot of anger in Cincinnati as well: mobs there repeatedly destroyed his press.

In 1837, Birney was indicted in Hamilton County, Ohio for alleged violation of an 1804 state statute that made it a crime to harbor fugitive slaves:

“[I]f any person shall harbor or secrete any black or mulatto person, the property of another, the person so offending shall, on conviction thereof, be fined any sum not less than ten nor more than fifty dollars.”

The count of the indictment on which Birney was convicted following trial stated:

“That James G. Birney, on March 1, 1837, and for a long time, previous thereto, in the county aforesaid, did unlawfully harbor and secrete a certain mulatto girl by the name of Matilda, the said Matilda then being a slave and the property of one Larkin Lawrence, contrary to the form of the statute.”

For reasons I will discuss in another post, it is worth noting the circumstances under which Matilda apparently escaped. Larkin brought Matilda, “under his own charge, in a steamboat, to the Cincinnati landing, where she remained until she left it for the service of” Birney.

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