Kelley vs. the Herald of Freedom, Part Two

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

The Bogus Legislature’s new laws came into force in September of 1855. One of them prohibited the circulation of incendiary material through the mail. That prohibition had a long history in the South. The federal government, customarily dominated by Southerners, looked the other way as its postmasters intercepted antislavery literature in the mail and destroyed it. While some of that mail may have come unsolicited, it did not all do so. The post office could and did seize mail papers and other material that white southerners chose to receive and destroyed it all the same.  For the sin of circulating the Herald of Freedom via the Atchison, Kansas post office, George Washington Brown could face a felony conviction and sentence to hard labor for not less than five years.

Robert S. Kelley wrote to let Brown know that he could keep his papers, except for a few copies that Kelley retained as evidence, and that he would go about securing legal advice on how to proceed. In his letter, he insisted that he had sent the papers back unmarked. That struck me as odd, but I assumed that he meant to give them back in salable condition so that Brown could not demand redress for lost business. Brown, however, relates things differently when he reports the affair in his own pages:

All the papers returned were variously inscribed. On one side of all was written, “Sent back from Atchison, K.T., Refused.” On the opposite side of some was written “Refused;” on another, “refused to circulate,” and on another, “Necessity may bring me to crime, but while I draw breath I cannot be induced to lend a hand to a measure I know to be suicidal to the interests of the South. I cannot and WILL NOT circulate this libel.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Kelley’s denial strikes me as perverse, an additional way to assert his power over Brown. He wrote what he wrote flagrantly, with the denial essentially taunting Brown with his inability to do anything about it. The politics fit precisely with Kelley’s own. Even if Kelley did not write the words himself, he might have let others do so on his behalf.

Brown opted to make the best of the situation. One might suspect he did the writing himself in light of the following, but given Kelley’s late record of obscuring his involvement with the Pardee Butler mobbing, I think it far more probable that the words came from Kelley. Anyway, Brown turned things around:

To circulate the HERALD OF FREEDOM, according to Postmaster Kelley, is “suicidal to the interests of the South.” We thank him for his compliment, and are turly glad to learn that our humble efforts in publishing a paper is fraught with such consequences as to make an impression upon the institutions of the South if circulated. In view of these facts, we ask our friends in the East to aid us with means to “circulate” the Herald. We are honest in the belief that it is doing as much to advance the cause of freedom as any instrumentality now claiming public favor, and as such we appeal to the anti-slavery public for pecuniary encouragement.

The Squatter Sovereign had asked for similar help from beyond Kansas in the past, declaring itself the biggest paper in the territory and slavery’s best hope. If it worked for the goose, why not the gander? George W. Brown had a business to run, after all. That business would welcome any income it could get and, aside the obvious chilling effect of refusing to circulate antislavery mail, Kelley’s program could very well ruin Brown if it became the norm throughout Kansas. A paper that can’t circulate can’t expect to retain subscribers.

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