George Brown Breaks the Law, Part One

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Kansas’ free state men had their convention. They organized a party, wrote it a platform, and called their own election for delegate to Congress set one week after the legislature called its election for the same office. Andrew Reeder would, if they had their way, go back to Washington. They further agreed that they must make their own government for Kansas, as they would find no relief in the one that the border ruffians had filibustered in against them. This took the antislavery party some distance past the achievements of prior conventions. Having a convention that made real gains rather than simply expressed their rhetoric apparently suited the party well, as they aimed to repeat the experience with another convention. September 5, 1855 saw them gather at Big Springs. There they called for a gathering at Topeka on September 19.

The territorial government had brought them to this juncture with its radical laws for the defense of slavery. Those laws entered into force on September 15. They provided that

If any free person, by speaking, or by writing, assert or maintain, that persons here have not the right to hold slaves in this Territory, or shall introduce into Kansas, print, publish, write, circulate, or cause to be introduced into this Territory, written printed, published or circulated in this Territory, any book, paper, magazine, pamphlet, or circular, containing any denial of the right of persons to hold slaves in this Territory, such person shall be deemed guilty of felony, and punished by the imprisonment at hard labor for a term of not less than two years.

On the 15, the “fatal day”, George Washington Brown quoted that law in the Herald of Freedom. He then continued:

With a full consciousness of the penalty that awaits us, and the oath of Gov. Shannon that every law enacted by the “Barons” of Kansas shall be enforced to the letter, we, on the 15th day of Septemeber, 1855, of perfectly sane mind, and with a full knowledge of the requirements of the law, do “write, print, publish and circulate in this Territory” a “paper with the emphatic “denial of the right of ” any “person to hold slaves in said Territory,” any law or enactment of the Barons of Kansas, or anybody else to the contrary, notwithstanding.

At least one who fancied himself an enforcer of the law took notice. Robert S. Kelley’s suppression of the paper arises from this issue. I realized in the course of other research that I neglected to share the offending details in my repeated trips back and forth across the fall of 1855.

Brown went on. He published a paper, so he could easily circulate that. But he had another item in his inventory which he considered at odds with the law.

The Bible-a book held in great repute by some men-copies of which we have for sale-declares that God commanded Moses to “proclaim Liberty throughout all the land, to ALL the inhabitants thereof.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Furthermore, if Kelley could brag about how vile he found Brown’s work then Brown could brag about doing this. He took “great pleasure” in distributing copies of the Bible. Indeed, the editor had instruction from the Almighty to “loose the bonds of wickedness, undo heavy burdens, and LET THE OPPRESSED GO FREE, and break every yoke.”

Not content with making himself into a man on a holy mission, Brown fancied himself a patriot as well:

The Declaration of Independence-a time-honored document, but not under bans in Kansas-tells us that “all men are created free and equal.” We enunciate, “write, print, and publish” that sentiment, and endorse it to the fullest extent, although it is a virtual “denial of the right to hold slaves in Kansas. We shall be happy to circulate that ancient State paper, and will respectfully recommend some of the Barons to adopt some method by which they can get an understanding of it. Perhaps their neighbors can acquaint them with its teachings if they are so unfortunate as not to be able to read it for themselves, as we are told is the case with some of their number.

The crack about literacy has some basis in fact, incidentally. While politicians surely knew their letters well enough, the South lagged behind the North in schooling. Statewide public school systems did not exist in most of the slave states until Reconstruction. This had the expected consequences for literacy, which I shall delve further into tomorrow.

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