When we imagines an antislavery group, we naturally fancy them racial egalitarians concerned with the horrific costs of slavery to the slaves. We expect Americans to preach racial egalitarianism, if only on the most superficial level. Our practice could still use much work. But people in the nineteenth century, though like us in many ways, did not live in our world and imbibe our norms. What we see as their shortcomings did not appear as such to most Kansans of the time. We might expect them to best approximate our sentiments when speaking of slavery itself, within the bounds of Kansas. Here they had good reason to launch a full-bore assault on the peculiar institution. Jim Lane’s platform does just that, in a way:
our true interests, socially, morally, and pecuniary, require that Kansas should be a free state; that free labor will best promote the happiness, the rapid population, the prosperity and wealth off our people; that slave labor is a curse to the master and the community, if not to the slave; that our country is unsuited to it; and that we will devote our energies as a party to exclude the institution and to secure for Kansas the constitution of a free state.
While Lane does make a moral condemnation of slavery, he specifically calls it a scourge upon only the master and the white community. It might, in fact, work out very well for the slaves. Maybe they need that kind of management and cannot prosper without it. This echoes proslavery writers who preached the virtues that slavery taught to the enslaved. They learned true white religion and true white civilization under the master’s lash. If that took a few stripes, then so it goes. Not blessed with the faculties granted to those who wisely chose white skin at their births, the slave required harsher tutelage. Even that would never make a slave into the equal of a white man, but slaves would realize a vast improvement all the same. That the slaves disagreed and resisted with slow work, broken tools, deliberately misunderstood instructions, by stealing themselves, and on occasion by outright violence did not enter into it. They just didn’t want to take their medicine. Resistance to brutality thus legitimated further brutality.
But Lane’s brief critique does have an element of truth to it. This comes not in the claims about Kansas’ suitability to slavery, as adjacent Missouri did just fine, nor in slavery’s economic backwardness. While generations of historians took that for granted, more recent studies have shown that slavery remained a tremendous fountain of stolen wealth for its practitioners. Consider instead the effect of habitual brutality upon other people. Every whipped slave requires a hand on the lash. If you see a person whipped for disobedience every day, if terrorizing people into compliance forms part of your daily experience, to some degree you internalize these things. As social animals, we pick up our norms from watching others. You get used to it. To minimize the stress of seeing it, you find ways to dull your natural empathy. You make excuses. You decide that you can’t do anything. We do not have it in us to begin the world anew. Participating yourself simply makes it imperative that you convince yourself of the necessity, even righteousness, of the violence much faster.
In a slave society, one grows up around this. The model of authority one imbibes must incorporate, to some degree, the use of brutal violence to secure compliance and demonstrate dominance. Not everybody will yield to these social pressure, but most people will. If they did not, a slave society could never develop in the first place. By learning how to manage slaves with violence and terror, one adopts a model that knows no color line. Violence against slaves receives its rationalization in necessity. They just have to learn that way, or horrors ensue. With that belief internalized what stops a person from applying the same methods to a white body that presents a challenge to slavery and so invokes the same potential horrors?
Nobody proposed selling Charles Robinson’s children, but his invocation of the slavery of whites has a grain of truth in it. Means of social control developed to preserve slavery would inevitably see use against whites who threatened the institution. They already had. When Robert S. Kelley came calling on Pardee Butler, he wanted Butler to endorse the whipping of a white man who questioned slavery. That level of abuse paled in comparison to what slaves endured daily, but it did pose a real threat to white Kansans. Any one of them gathered might become as the next Butler, or worse.
At Big Springs, the free state movement endorsed James Lane’s platform denying that they had anything to do with abolitionists and promising that they wanted slavery out of Kansas and Kansas alone, accepting the right of other places to decide for slavery just as they decided against it. They further committed themselves to aiding in the recovery of slaves who stole themselves into Kansas. They came together despite their natural partisan inclinations, combining against the imposition of slavery upon them alone and with the expectation that they would part company once Kansas had rendered its verdict. Of course, that meant that Kansans had to decide for Kansas and thus:
we will oppose and resist all non-resident voters at our polls, whether from Missouri or elsewhere, as a gross violation of our rights and a virtual disfranchisement of our citizens.
Lane’s condemnation could include new voters brought in by the Emigrant Aid Society, some of whom had come with intent to stay but then found Kansas not the promised land of milk and honey. In leaving, they retroactively made themselves into a kind of antislavery filibuster. But then one could only know that in after the fact, whereas the Missourians had made it clear from the start that most of them had no intention of remaining within Kansas.
The language of resistance should naturally be read in light of the violent seizure of past polls, but free soil resistance had heretofore confined itself to the field of rhetoric. If necessary, Lane’s resolution could expand that resistance to include military companies such as the one that Samuel Wood led and had featured into the Lawrence Fourth of July festivities. They had their rights as white American men to protect.
The quest to build a big tent movement required many concessions which some antislavery men would bear only reluctantly, such as Lane’s proposed black law:
The the best interests of Kansas require a population of free white man, and that in the state organization we are in favor of stringent laws excluding all negroes, bond or free, from the territory. That nevertheless such measures shall not be regarded as a test of party orthodoxy.
I know I’ve talked about this provision before, but Lane wrote it into the platform. However, the final sentence gave some leeway to the less committed racists. Men like George W. Brown could condemn the resolution and remain members in good standing of the party, despite its including in the platform and the generally mandatory nature of such affirmations. I don’t have the sources to say this with confidence, but the measure reads like one that came originally without the proviso and received it in the course of deliberations.
The black law’s proponents could naturally point to their measure as one sure to keep slavery from Kansas. Likewise they could calm fears that blacks required slavery to prevent them from becoming horrid menaces to society. Neither would present any problem in a Kansas free from black Americans. But what of the enslaved people already in Kansas? Lane had a resolution for that too:
we will consent to any fair and reasonable provision in regard to the slaves already in the territory, which shall protect the masters against injustice and total loss.
In short, the free state party would consider some form of compensated, gradual emancipation as had been undertaken in the northern states between the 1780s and 1804. Thus Kansas’ resident slaveholders need not fear for their investment in lives. If they wished to remain, they could recoup at least some of their capital. Or they could take the far easier route and sell their human property across the line in Missouri. Many northern slaveholders had opted for that strategy as days of emancipation drew near, even in defiance of laws to the contrary.
The Big Springs Convention decided on nominating Andrew Reeder for delegate to Congress. They, despite initial reluctance on the part of some, signed themselves up for the Lawrence radicals’ plan to create their own government. They nigh-unanimously committed themselves to keeping black Americans out of Kansas. But a nineteenth century mass meeting had to have its resolutions. The resolutions on the platform, the work of James Lane’s committee, constituted a proper manifesto which the convention-goers considered binding on the party as a whole. Other resolutions, reported out of a separate committee and authored by Andrew Reeder, came as the price of involving Reeder in the movement and, the convention hoped, readers would understand them as more polemic than policy. R.G. Elliott further adds that Reeder intended those resolutions as a way for him to defend himself against the various attacks on his land speculations and disputes with the legislature.
Elliott’s article includes what look like the complete texts of both sets of resolutions in a rather long footnote. Lane’s platform begins in classic big tent form, articulating the by now canonical grievances against the proslavery party’s election stealing and otherwise tyrannical attack on white male liberties. It then proceeds to the urgency of unity among Kansas disparate antislavery groups:
setting aside all the minor issues of partizan politics, it is incumbent upon us to proffer an organization calculated to recover out dearest rights, and into which Democrats and Whigs, native and naturalized citizens, may freely enter without any sacrifice of their respective political creeds, but without forcing them as a test upon others.
The free state movement declared itself an antislavery party for Kansas and nothing more. While Kansas had no issue save the slavery question, they would remain so. But the resolution foresaw a time when the state of Kansas would have its institutions settled. Then Lane foresaw the movement disbanding back into its constituent parts and resuming politics as usual. By expressing their unity in such a contingent manner, Lane emphasized how the movement understood themselves as forced together by necessity and thus, in a sense, their own thing that arose out of the particular circumstances in Kansas and in reaction to the abuses of the border ruffians and their Kansan compatriots. They had nothing to do with antislavery movements in other states:
the stale and ridiculous charge of abolitionism, so industriously imputed to the free-state party, and so pertinaciously adhered to, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, is without a shadow of truth to support it; and that it is not more apparent to ourselves than it is to our opponents, who use it as a term of reproach to bring odium upon us, pretending to believe in its truth and hoping to frighten from our ranks the weak and timid, who are more willing to desert their principles than they are to stand up under persecution and abuse with a consciousness of right.
we will discountenance and denounce any attempt to encroach upon the constitutional rights of the people of any state, or to interfere with their slaves, conceding to their citizens the right to regulate their own institutions and to hold and recover their slaves, without any molestation or obstruction from the people of Kansas.
Few abolitionists ever proposed to raid into the South and steal slaves away to freedom, but probably none would have happily committed themselves to permitting the recovery of slaves who stole themselves from free soil. While they surely inflated their exploits after the war rendered them the heroes of the day, plenty considered it a point of honor to help runaways who made it to their doorsteps. Here they agreed, at least for the moment, to abide by even the odious Fugitive Slave Act.
R.G. Elliott related his work and the power of James Lane’s spellbinding oratory at the Big Springs Convention, the latter of which overturning the former. Thus the free state party of Kansas had committed themselves to excluding black Americans from their future state and to developing an alternative government which would strike at once for statehood. But parties need platforms to organize around. They had a black code and a general opposition to slavery, but two planks do not a platform make. Furthermore, the antislavery position would complicate their efforts to gain recognition in Washington. They could hardly deny the position, but to win over more indifferent northerners who they would surely need they would do better to minimize it and focus their rhetoric around the abuse of white liberties.
Elliott reports that the committee on resolutions split in two branches. James Lane chaired the one charged with developing “a broad and substantial platform”. The other would “furnish explosives and projectiles for a defiant pyrotechnic display-elements too dangerous to be inserted in the platform and too radical to be imposed upon the masses.” These groups seem at cross-purposes, but Elliott has an explanation for the business: Andrew Reeder insisted.
The former governor, “rankling” over his “crucifixion” on “base and baseless accusation[s]” related to his land speculation and the Pawnee affair, wanted a chance to defend himself in the court of public opinion:
On the 30th of August Reeder was stopping at the American Hotel, in Kansas City, with his trunk packed in readiness to depart to his home in Pennsylvania, when Parrott also stopped there, on his way to a Democratic conference at Tecumseh. Reeder had expressed his indignation in a set of resolutions which he showed to Parrott, intimating his purpose of attending the convention at Big Springs and taking a parting shot at the legislature. So borrowing a valise from Colonel Eldridge, he set out for Lawrence, where an arrangement was made to handle his explosive by a select committee, so as not to encumber the platform. The resistant features of the resolutions were vainly sought to be modified in the convention by Parrott, Lane, and other conservatives, but the utterly atrocious features of the slave code, just recently made public, had worked the popular mind up to such a pitch that no language was too strong to express their indignation, and the resolutions were adopted with a defiant shout.
Here, as before, the proslavery men in their excesses radicalized their opposition. A moderate Kansan might dismiss some violence, however much it horrifies us, as something that a troublemaker had coming. We see that behavior often enough today. The laws that the bogus legislature chose to pass, however, bound all Kansans alike. Few considered their mere residence in the territory as sufficient cause for such measures.
Elliot went on to complain that the proslavery party then drew no distinction between the free staters’ binding platform and the Reeder-authored incendiaries. I confess wondering just who would. Both came through the same convention, with the votes of the same hundred men in their favor. The difference between them might have mattered to free state coalition-builders, but the convention asked Kansans of all stripes to vote for Reeder and so his personal vindication became at least an ex officio binding concern on them all. Furthermore, Reeder’s dismissal on grounds notionally unrelated to slavery made him the ideal totem for their appeal to the sanctity of white liberty. Here they had a martyr of the Slave Power, endorsed by the national Democracy not that long ago and untainted by sympathy with black Americans. Reeder perfectly fit the movement’s political needs.
The free state party agreed, ninety-nine to one, that they should permit no black people in Kansas. They agreed to nominate Andrew Reeder to represent them in Washington. But the Big Springs convention drew together a heterodox group of Kansans, not all of whom had gone off to Lawrence twice in the past to condemn the enslavement of white Kansans. The idea hatched at the last Lawrence convention of forming a rival government and striking for statehood came before a committee at Big Springs headed by Lawrence resident R.G. Elliott. The convention’s chairman, Judge George W. Smith, and its resident political chameleon James Lane, expected that their friend Elliott would report out a recommendation along those lines. Elliott, who could count maybe twenty delegates at Big Springs who favored the measure, declined to do his friends that favor. Instead his committee reported the “untimely and inexpedient” nature of the proposal.
They did not take this well. When the committee’s report came before the convention at large, one of the radicals moved to replace the report with one reversing the committee’s verdict. The usual speeches in favor took place, with Lane waiting until the others had said their piece. Then the man himself stood:
rising to the occasion, under a shadow of threatened defeat, he gave an exhibition of that magic faculty by which he controlled primitive assemblages, convincing them against their judgment and bending them against their will. It was not measured oratory nor logical argument, nor was it an emotional harangue, but the blending of an accompaniment toned to the popular chord, with a dramatic presentation of the subject that materialized as a moving, tangible reality. His ideal was a state, not antagonistic, but harmonizing, rising legitimately out of the popular-sovereignty clause of the organic act; the rightful heir to sovereignty, with the territorial organization as regent.
Lane further suggested that Stephen Douglas “anxiously” awaited word of their exploits and Franklin Pierce stood “ready to sacrifice his right arm” to sustain them, correct his past errors, and save the Democracy.
These declarations have much more to do with Lane’s ambitions than any reality, but Elliott casts Lane as working actively to make himself the leader of a moderate faction separate from the Lawrence group. This fits well with reports of his behavior at the late Lawrence convention. By invoking the national Democracy and insisting he had its favor, Lane positioned himself as a national man rather than a sectional slavery or antislavery enthusiast. He could then use his middle position to mainstream those positions of the Lawrence radicals he favored among the more western contingent, while likewise using the westerners against those Lawrence-born ideas he opposed. In the long term, a record for that could go far in making him acceptable to the former proslavery party of a united Kansas.
To hear Elliott tell it, Lane converted the majority to the free state movement then and there. He generally paints Lane as the hero of the day, even while expressing his regrets over how things fell out. It may have happened that way, but I suspect that one speech convinces few people of much of anything. It seems more likely that Elliott at least slightly overestimated opposition to the statehood plan, that more at Big Springs stood uncommitted but open to convincing, and that the other speakers exerted a significant influence as well. Leaders can and do make a difference, but in the real world they rarely have such powers as to convert committed foes to their cause with a single speech.
But however it happened, the convention agreed with Lane and set aside Elliott’s report, deciding instead that the free state government and statehood proposal came both timely and expedient.
The free state men must unite or face continued defeat. Thus they convened at Big Springs with that aim in mind above all others. The practical necessity of unity led George W. Brown and others to accept resolutions, favored by an overwhelming majority of the convention’s delegates, to write a ban on the entry of black Americans into Kansas despite their personal reservations. But if they resolved that difference with some ease, given the scarcity of racially progressive free state men, then another raised more serious questions about their unity. What should the free state movement do next? All agreed on a party and on nominating Andrew Reeder for delegate to Congress, but not everybody rushed to sign on for the Lawrence radicals’ plan to create a rival government.
The convention appointed a committee to review that proposal and generate recommendations. Here George Brown’s bad shoulder does not leave us with a lacuna in the sources. The chairman of that committee, R.G. Elliott, wrote down his recollections in a paper he read to a meeting in Lawrence in 1902. I found it in Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume 8.
after a night’s consideration and much outside inquiry, [the committee] reported unanimously, over their signatures, against the proposition, summing their conclusions in the phrase “untimely and inexpedient.”
Looking back down the decades, Elliott considered his judgment accurate in light of later events but not entirely adequate. In 1902, he remedied the lack of his younger self by calling the move for a wildcat free state government “absurd.” Even without the benefit of hindsight, Elliott’s committee had good reason to look askance at the plan:
Among the many reasons for the committee’s judgment, the most cogent was the want of popular support, the sole foundation for a political organization. Among the more than 100 delegates, not one could be found who favored the proposition, except those, less than a score, who had been initiated into the movement at Lawrence. It was with a feeling of deep regret that both Judge Smith and Colonel Lane heard the adverse report. Both, relying on an intimate friendship with the chairman of the committee, had been confident of the approval of the measure.
Lane, late of black exclusion law fame, requires no introduction but I confess that I don’t think I’ve heard of Smith before. According to Charles Clark’s directory of free state men, Smith shared leadership duties in the early free state movement. He remains obscure in my sources: Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era mentions him only as a free state man imprisoned and then sent East on his release to publicize the plight of antislavery Kansans. He does not appear in Rawley’s account of the convention in Race and Politics, nor Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas.
I mention this because it seems I’ve made an error. I did not read the fine print on the bill accompanying this series of posts well enough. It lists Charles Robinson as chairman and I mistakenly read that as calling him chairman of the Big Springs Convention, rather than of the free state committee at Lawrence. The error came to my attention in reading what Clark had to say about Smith, who actually served in that role. The biographical sketch Clark cites, in volume ten of Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, makes that clear. I messed up. Sorry.
We left the Big Springs Convention on a decidedly low note: ninety-nine votes to one approval of a constitutional ban on allowing black Americans into their free state of Kansas. George W. Brown spent a long paragraph condemning the measure, but he knew all too well that such laws had passed in other western states. He opposed them when back East, but in the end accepted that he and others could only expect so much from an antislavery movement chiefly concerned with the peculiar institution’s negative effect upon whites. In that he made the same calculation that many had, including a homely failed politician who had taken pains to never set himself openly against the racism of his fellow Illinoisans.
That Brown made this calculation becomes evident immediately thereafter:
A determination was apparent with every delegate to the convention that the Free State party should unite. Division, it was evident, was defeat. A united front was victory. The result of that day’s procedure will be felt for ages. – The union and harmony which finally characterized the proceedings will give to the American galaxy another star, which will ultimately be the brightest in the constellation-one which will not be dimmed in the least by the foul stain of slavery.
Principles can get in the way of successful politics, even if one hopes that the desire to do politics flows from the principles. While Brown could only hope that unity would bring victory, he didn’t need to speculate as to what the proslavery party would do if faced only by divided, ineffective opposition. He could just look outside.
Building an alternative politics for Kansas required a candidates to run for office just as much as it did resolutions, platforms, and conventions. The thirty-third Congress had ended its term back in March. The thirty-fourth would convene starting in December. That meant Kansas would have to elect a new delegate. For that job, the free state movement had in mind their first martyr of national standing: Andrew Reeder.
When the nomination was made by acclamation it seemed as if the heavens were vocal with applause; and Governor Reeder’s appearance on the stand, in answer to the long and repeated calls, was received with the most boisterous shouts of satisfaction. Had a General returned in triumph from the battle-field, bearing the trophies of a thousand victories, he could not have been greeted with a more hearty welcome than was extended to him on this occasion.
Reeder gave a good speech, which Brown called “replete with important ideas” and “every word had a meaning.” The crowd ate it up. The Herald of Freedom does not include Reeder’s words in full, due again to Brown’s shoulder, but he fully appreciated the significance of choosing the deposed governor:
We expressed a wish that Frank Pierce could have looked out upon that collection of “squatter sovereigns,” and seen the man he had attempted to put down, and the manner the PEOPLE were disposed to take him up. Frank Pierce, with the nation at his heels, was never as popular or so deeply enshrined in the affections of the people, as is our own late Chief Magistrate, in the hearts of the American people.
The Free State Party had its convention, yet again, but now it also had a candidate to rally around. But they had still more divisions to resolve before they concluded their work that September day.
George Washington Brown, editor of the lately-suppressed Herald of Freedom, came to the free state convention at Big Springs on September 5, 1855. The meager accommodations proved no particular obstacle to the proceedings, which only took the one day. To hear Brown tell it, the convention got the turnout that its organizers hoped:
Delegates were there from every district, save the 16th, and a finer body of men are seldom seen together. The only fault we could find, there was too much talent among them, else too many persons who wished to distinguish themselves. They came together from all sections of the Union. It was but natural, therefore, that there should be a minor difference of opinion upon minor questions, and that those divisions should engender discussion.
That surplus of talent did not, however, include an ability to record the speeches given. Brown apologizes for this. He had something wrong with his shoulder and so couldn’t hold a pen.
As to the differences of opinion, Brown went into more detail:
The people from New York, New England, and some from Pennsylvania and Ohio, were in favor of a State Constitution which should be silent upon the subject of a “black law,” whilst those from the Western States, very generally, were in favor of ingrafting the exclusion policy into the State Constitution. The committee, who labored long and arduously upon the question, finally agreed, with one dissenting voice, and made their report.
James Lane reported out that platform. Out of a hundred delegates, only one voted against adopting a state constitution that forbade black Americans from living in Kansas. This likely represented the true consensus of free soil Kansans at the time. However much we might like to imagine them as modern racial egalitarians, such men did not carry the day. Rather the David Wilmots of Kansas, and those willing to compromise with them, did.
The proposed law makes sense from a strictly antislavery perspective. Concerned more with the wrongs slavery did to and the power it granted over whites than to its primary victims, one would want to keep it from Kansas. What better way to keep the land free from it than to forbid the presence of the race enslavers chose for their victims? This logic at best only follows from a callous, if common, indifference to the lives of black Americans. Furthermore, it comes informed by something rather more malign still: the firm conviction that black Americans had and deserved no rightful place on the continent. On these grounds, proslavery men often hurled charges of hypocrisy at their foes. The pretend humanitarians, so the argument went, so hated black people that they wished them gone. Gentle patriarchs, however, loved them and wished to keep them close.
The convention might have approved Jim Lane’s black law, “with little apparent dissatisfaction” and he admitted that a majority of free state men favored the provision, but Brown did not:
For ourself, we take this occasion to remark that the platform does not meet with our hearty approbation. We are opposed from principle to “every form of tyranny,” it matters not to which of the races it is extended-over the body and mind of man.” While resident of Ohio, we labored constantly to secure the repeal of what appeared to us an odious law-a law similar, in many respects, to that desired for Kansas. In Pennsylvania we rejoiced when our neighbors of Ohio triumphed with the right, in erasing those oppressive enactments from their statute books.
I don’t know if Brown ever approved of making black men voters, but he clearly didn’t care much for the idea of preventing them from becoming Kansans.
The free state movement in Kansas, however often defeated, outlawed, and subjected to freelance violence, had yet to give up the ghost. Twice free state conventions met in Lawrence and passed resolutions condemning the proslavery party for its trampling of white self-determination. But with their last questionable ally in the territory’s government, Andrew Reeder, dismissed and replaced by Wilson Shannon, they had enough to do more than write protests. Excluded from Kansas’ legal government, they could exercise no influence at all in its formation. They could not hope that the proslavery men would have a fit of magnanimity and let them into the political process at some decisive moment. Thus they appealed to the example of their revolutionary forefathers and declared independence from the territorial government. It would not govern them, but rather a government of their own creation would.
This meant, of course, that they had to then create that government. To do otherwise would make them look like a band of anarchists and hardly endear them to the nation at large, which would have to ratify their work by admitting their Kansas into the Union some time down the road. That would require yet another convention, as even many who attended the mid-August Lawrence convention considered it more a party meeting than a general assembly of Kansans. In Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era, Nichole Etcheson adds the further wrinkle that the convention would not take place in Lawrence as more moderate Kansans, often hailing from the more western states, might find such a setting amid antislavery radicals uncongenial. Thus Kansans met at Big Springs, which Alice Nichols describes in Bleeding Kansas as “a four-cabin trading-post stop on the Calfiornia Road west of Lawrence” where
Split-log benches were filled. Every tree had its leaner. Free-soil delegates and onlookers had come in spring wagons, lumber wagons, carts, in rockaways and buggies, on horeseback, muleback, and afoot. They had come to devise such measures and means as would, in their opinion, best serve the free-soil cause and their own interests.
Between Big Springs and Pawnee, territorial Kansas seems especially afflicted by inadequate facilities.
But the announcement bid “all people who are favorable to a union of effort, and a permanent organization of the all the Free State elements of Kansas Territory” to elect delegates on August 25 to come to Big Springs on September 5th. The people came, generous accommodations or not. The Lawrence radicals appeared, despite some initial reluctance about the possibility of erecting too big a tent. James Lane, still in the process of his conversion, addressed the crowd. They all came committed to organizing their party, writing a platform, and nominating a delegate to Congress.
George Brown’s Herald of Freedom reported their work. In reading this, I initially thought that Robert Kelley might have had the September 8 Herald on hand to refuse in his September 7 letter. The timing makes that possible, but barely. Brown attended the convention on the 5th and could have set his type and printed on the 6th, or possibly late on the 5th, and had his papers in the mail to subscribers. Thus Kelley could have had the report to cite as the straw which broke the camel’s back. But that expects a great deal of the transportation infrastructure in Kansas. I’m afraid I don’t know enough about it to say if it could deliver. If anyone does, I’m glad to hear it. All the same, Brown’s reporting of the convention doesn’t appear any more incendiary than anything else he’d previously written. Thus I think it more likely that Kelley saw the Assembly’s gag law come into effect and took advantage at his first opportunity, convention reporting or otherwise.
Update: A previous version of this post named Charles Robinson the convention’s chairman and Brown’s Herald of Freedom its official reporter. Both declarations came from an erroneous reading of the sources. Further scrutiny has revealed that George W. Smith chaired the convention and if the Herald had an official role, rather than just doing ordinary reporting, I haven’t seen evidence of it.
Pursuant to the new laws passed by the proslavery Assembly of Kansas, Robert S. Kelley, Atchison postmaster, editor of the proslavery Squatter Sovereign, and business partner of Kansas Speaker of the House John H. Stringfellow, refused to distribute copies of George Washington Brown’s Herald of Freedom. He sent them back, save for a few kept as evidence, with a note asking Brown to keep his “rotten and corrupt effusions” to himself. He most likely also marked them up in various ways that he denied in his letter.
Brown took to the pages of his paper to express his outrage at the interference in the mail and, not incidentally, his business. He asked for help from outside Kansas to continue the antislavery fight. Along the way, he also thanked Kelley for paying his newspaper the compliment of declaring it a dire threat to slavery.
The fact remained, however, that Kelley had interfered with the United States mail. While such interference could and did happen frequently in the South, Brown and other antislavery Kansans did not care to yet concede that Kansas belonged in that section. Thus he reached out to the Postmaster-General James Campbell, to whom Brown
submitted Mr. Kelley’s letter, also the inscription on the wrapper of the returned papers, and the paper itself. […] If he allows his officials to decide what matter is “incendiary,” there is an end to the freedom of the press in Kansas if not America.
By this point, Brown can’t have expected much of the Pierce administration. Still, one should follow the proper forms so others could not find fault in neglecting to do so. Making the protest showed that Brown really did care enough to make a case of it and demonstrated that he sought redress within the bounds of law. Kelley could hardly claim the same.
More than freedom of the press hung in the balance. Sending the papers through the mail meant sending them to a named person who could himself be liable for prosecution under the same law as Brown or subject to the kind of informal “justice” that Kelley had doled out to Pardee Butler the month prior. Even keeping the mail a secret between sender, receiver, and postmaster still left Kelley in the loop. This prospect could hardly delight anybody who preferred to avoid visits by armed and unfriendly men.
At this point, it had to seem like the proslavery men had every advantage. They controlled the legislature. They had essentially outlawed antislavery politics. Pursuant to those laws, the territory’s leading antislavery paper could not longer reach at least part of the state where it once had. A new, avowedly proslavery governor presided over Kansas. Proslavery men could burn down houses, tar and feather, whip, and run out of Kansas any antislavery man in their reach. But whatever good cause Kelley, the Stringfellows, and others had to gloat in the fall of 1855 they had not yet carried the territory. The resort to extrajudicial defense of slavery speaks to a fundamental insecurity, at least in the minds of the mob. They might control the legal levers of power, but they did not enjoy the kind of solidarity that they might in a more consolidated slave state. They had yet to persuade or terrorize the free soilers into yielding the territory.