George Brown Shoots Back

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

We left George Brown defiantly publishing his violations of the bogus legislature’s slave codes. He bragged about how he flouted the law to say that one had no right to hold slaves in Kansas and circulated other antislavery materials including the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. If they wanted to enforce their law, then proslavery men knew where to find him. Robert S. Kelley, ringleader at the mobbing of Pardee Butler, business partner of Speaker of the House John Stringfellow in the Squatter Sovereign, and postmaster at Atchison received Brown’s paper in the course of his duties at the post office. He promptly returned the copies, save for a few he kept as evidence, with a nasty note that Brown should keep his work to himself. The law would catch up with the editor in due course.

In due course did not, however, mean at once. Brown received Kelley’s note of September 7 and published further defiance on September 22, 1855. I wrote about this before, but I think that I missed a second shot back at Kelley in the same issue:

We would respectfully call the attention of Postmaster Kelley, of Atchison, K.T., to the 32d section of an act of Congress, approved July 2d, 1836, entitled “An act to change the organization of the Postoffice,” &c.

“Sec. 32. And be it further enacted, That if any postmaster shall unlawfully detain in his office any letter, package, pamphlet or newspaper, with intent to prevent the arrival and delivery of the same to the person or persons to whom such a letter, package, pamphlet or newspaper may be addressed or directed in the usual course of the transportation of the mail along the route; or if any postmaster shall, with intent as aforesaid, give a preference to any letter, package, pamphlet or newspaper, over another, which may pass through his office, by forwarding the one and retaining the other, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in a sum not exceeding five hundred dollars and imprisoned for a term not exceeding six months, and shall, moreover, be forever thereafter incapable of holding the office of postmaster in the United States.

Kelley could threaten Brown’s freedom and livelihood under the law of Kansas. But as an employee of the United States Post Office, he had to abide by the laws governing it. Kelley clearly broke those laws. Thus Brown essentially dared him to come and fight it out in the courts. Maybe they could share a cell.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Mutually assured destruction requires both parties able to carry out their half of the devastation, however. Though Brown had broken the laws of Kansas, he may not have expected Kelley would come down for him with a posse. The people of Lawrence might not allow any such effort, even if Kelley or some sheriff got one together. Likewise, Brown did not plan to march up to Atchison to collect Kelley. Both men had placed themselves in similar legal peril, but they did so with the expectation that their respective communities would support and defend them. Lawrence already had a militia company. Kelley could command Atchison mobs. If either reached out with more than paper, pitched battles might ensue.

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