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.