The Squatter Sovereign on Butler, Part One

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

The Squatter Sovereign brought Pardee Butler to grief. He told its editor, Robert S. Kelley, that he did not care for the paper’s violent rhetoric. Kelley led an armed gang that demanded he put his name to a specimen of that rhetoric, an endorsement of whipping and hanging antislavery men literally cut and pasted from the Sovereign’s pages. When Butler refused, they hauled him down to the river, painted a black R on his face, indulged in a kind of show trial with the gathering mob, and then set him off down the Missouri after deciding they would not, after all, just kill him on the spot. One must wonder what Robert S. Kelley decided his paper should say about the affair.

Kelley reported under the heading “Great Excitement in Atchison-An Abolitionist Preacher Shipped on a Raft.” He accused Butler of going through Atchison to bring in free soil men “from the penitentiaries and pest holes of the Northern States.” Kelley might not have believed Butler if told that the minister went to retrieve his wife and children, but he also might not have seen much difference. He related how Butler

proceeded to visit numerous portions of our town, everywhere avowing himself a freesoiler, and preaching the foulest of abolition heresies. He declared the recent action of our citizens, in regard to J.W.B. Kelly, the infamous and unlawful proceedings of a mob.

Nothing about slandering the newspaper here, but so Kelley he has reported things that Butler either actually did or intended to do. He really did propose to bring free soil people, his family, back from the East. He really did speak his views in Atchison. Those views included opposition to slavery in the territory. Butler might have even said specific things against the whipping and driving out of J.W.B. Kelly, which would make confronting him with the resolutions of Kelly’s assailants rather on point.

For those offenses, Kelley reports,

our townsmen assembled en masse, and deemed the presence of such persons highly detrimental to the safety of our slave property; appointed a committee of two to wait on Mr. Butler, and request his signature to the resolutions passed at the late pro-slavery meeting in Atchison.

Kelley’s involvement vanishes. Townsmen, not him, assembled. “They”, whatever names they answered to, appointed a committee of two (Butler counted six and noted their guns.) which likewise remained anonymous. Everybody who wanted to know in Atchison could know just who did what, but Kelley wrote for at least all of Kansas and some of Missouri to read. They wouldn’t all know and by obscuring his role in affairs Kelley both protects himself personally and strengthens the impression that everybody in Atchison acted of one mind.

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

Kelley gave a brief account of Butler’s face painting and setting on the river. What happened to the minister himself mattered less than the lesson he wished others to take from it.

Such treatment may be expected by all scoundrels, visiting our town with the purpose of interfering with our time-honored institutions, and the same punishment we will be happy to award all Freesoilers, Abolitionists and their emissaries. If this should prove insufficient to deter them from their dastardly and infamous propensity for negro stealing, we will draw largely on the hemp crops of our Missouri neighbors, for a supply of the article, sufficient to afford every jail-bird in the north, a necklace twelve feet in length.

Kelley might have meant in mentioning the length of rope just that Missouri could supply all the lynchers’ needs. He may have meant something worse. Too long a rope, and twelve feet definitely counts, used in a drop hanging as seen in old westerns and actually practiced in nineteenth century America, would result in beheading. Maybe Kelley intended to state the ample rope reading and imply the beheading. Perhaps I’ve read too much into it. Either way, he made a serious threat well in keeping both general proslavery rhetoric and what I’ve read of his own output.

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