Florence Kelley’s education was directed first by her father, a Congressman for thirty five years from Pennsylvania, called Pig Iron Kelley because he represented the iron and steel districts of Pennsylvania and was fiercely protectionist, voting in favor of tariffs to shield the industry from competition from abroad.
The question of tariffs and of whether the United States currency and banking deposits should be backed by gold or silver were the burning policy questions of the 1890’s. A prominent abolitionist, Congressman Kelley lived through the Civil War and bore witness to the economic and political devastation which followed.
William Darrah Kelley was himself a self-educated man. His widowed mother sent him out as an apprentice as soon as he was old enough. Before that he worked as a runner and a proofreader. His father, David Kelley, a expert watchmaker and jeweler of some renown, suffered severe financial losses after the War of 1812. He endorsed a note for his brother in law who defaulted on the debt, bringing financial ruin on David Kelley, who fell upon the street and died at age 32, probably of a stroke or heart attack.
The family was forced into bankruptcy, with a sheriff’s sale of all of their goods, except his father’s tools which were hidden. William Darrah Kelley was two, and there were three sisters. His mother did what women then often did in those circumstances, with the help of another brother in law – not the one who defaulted on the note – she opened a boarding house. Many single workers and recent immigrants needed room and board in Philadelphia, and other places, such as Chicago, which attracted large numbers of single men and women from other parts of America and abroad.
At age eleven Florence Kelley’s father was taken out of school to go to work for a dollar a week, first as an errand boy at a lottery office, then at a bookstore, where at least he could read, and then to an umbrella maker. He also worked as a copy reader in a printing office from 6am until 8pm, and in the summer from the earliest light until dark.
In 1825 as a young boy his job was to read aloud with distinctness volumes of history and high caliber fiction for the proof readers in the printing office of the publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Later, William Darrah Kelley claimed that this job caused him lifelong stomach trouble, since he chewed green tea leaves to keep himself awake for the long hours. He also blamed the chewing of the green tea leaves for a lifelong temperament of excitability and nervousness.
At thirteen William Darrah Kelley apprenticed with his father’s tools at a jewelry manufacturing firm for the customary seven years, living with that family, and organizing in the evening a youth library association of apprentices, which eventually accumulated a lending library of several thousand volumes, and sponsored a lecture series.
At the end of his apprenticeship he joined the nation’s first general strike in 1834, in the depression of 1834, and joined the campaign for the ten-hour law. Now able to vote, he supported Andrew Jackson and denounced the founding of the first National Bank, the precursor to the Federal Reserve System, an unpopular political position for Philadelphia’s Whigs and conservative Democrats. He thus alienated himself from the then Philadelphia political establishment, especially when he refused to sign a petition from his employers for the retention of the national bank.
Basically in exile from Philadelphia and living in Boston for the next four years, William Darrah Kelley worked in the trade he knew and was employed by a commercial jeweler. He showed such ingenuity and artistry in this that he won an award for a set of gold cups he made for his employer which were commissioned by the Imam of Muscat.
While in Boston William Darrah Kelley continued to educate himself in the many lyceums, lecture halls and political gatherings of that city, all the while keeping up with Philadelphia politics with newspapers, and often speaking in public himself. William Darrah Kelley made such an impression on George Bancroft, the Collector of the Port of Boston, that he was invited to read in Bancroft’s private library. Bancroft suggested that the young man should apply for a scholarship to Harvard. William Darrah Kelley instead preferred to return to Philadelphia, which he did in 1839. His grandson, Nicholas Kelley, whom he did meet before he died, would graduate from Harvard and from the Harvard Law School.
In Philadelphia William Darrah Kelley read law in the offices of Colonel James Page, a local leader of the Democratic Party. William Darrah Kelley married the Scottish niece of his patron, who died in childbirth. Later he was to break with this political sponsor. In 1841 William Darrah Kelley was admitted to the Philadelphia Bar, and in 1845 he was appointed a prosecutor of common pleas. In 1846 he was appointed and then elected to be a judge. He changed his party affiliation and ran as an independent in 1851. While on the bench, and as a lawyer, he was a powerful voice for the anti-slavery movement, which had deep roots and coalitions among Philadelphia Quakers and other civic organizations, many led by women.
In 1855 he was the judge in a case involving a slave woman, Jane Johnson, who ran away and hid in Philadelphia with her two children when her American owner, then the American Minister to Nicaragua, docked in Philadelphia on his way to New York. Johnson’s former owner brought charges against her Philadelphia protectors on the Underground Railroad for riot, assault, and battery, and Judge Kelley heard the case.
At great risk to herself, Jane Johnson entered Judge Kelley’s courtroom to testify that she had left her former master freely, while female members of William Darrah Kelley’s family, including Florence Kelley’s influential, abolitionist Aunt, Sarah Pugh, and other members of the very active Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, escorted her to court and protected her, along with the Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia, an African-American group that organized Underground Railroad rescues and strategically filled Philadelphia courtrooms with supporters in cases involving runaway slaves. The safety and freedom of the fleeing woman was ensured, it was said, by the ‘energy and skill’ of Judge Kelley, as Johnson was driven rapidly away from the courthouse under armed guard and then passed on to a place of safety with her children.
William Darrah Kelley resigned from the Democratic party in disgust in 1854 after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill extending slavery to the territories. He then resigned his judicial post to which he had been elected as a Democrat and returned to practice law. Two years later he was nominated as a Congressional candidate on the Fremont Republican Party ticket. He lost along with the general party defeat. In 1860 he took a prominent part in the Republican National Convention in Chicago, and was a member of the Committee which notified Lincoln of his nomination. When Lincoln was elected in November, William Darrah Kelley was swept into Congress in a Republican landslide. He became a lifelong supporter, campaigner for and friend of Lincoln, and knew the President well enough to call himself a habitue of the Executive Chamber. He was a member of the House Ways and Means Committee for twenty years and Chairman for two (1881-1883).
William Darrah Kelley was an advocate for free trade until the depression of 1857. Later his travels in the South left him deeply disturbed by the economic destruction after the Civil War, and he became protectionist. He made a speaking trip to the cities in the South, speaking in favor of the economic rebuilding of the South without the ‘hell-born’ institution of slavery. These speeches were not always received in the Quaker spirit of peace. In Mobile, Alabama a lynch mob greeted his exhortations, a riot ensued, and one man was killed and another wounded.
Women’s suffrage and emancipation was, along with abolition, a lifelong commitment. He frequently appeared on platforms with Susan B. Anthony, a longtime friend, and gave speeches at Women’s Rights Conventions. In Congress he was the regular sponsor of the introduction of the women’s suffrage amendment.
Widely traveled and conversant with the ideas of the labor and reform movements in Europe and England, William Darrah Kelley traveled to Berlin in the summer of 1879 and was granted an interview with Bismarck, at the request of Ambassador Andrew D. White, the former President of Cornell. The far-ranging conversation with Bismarck resulted in a series of letters to the Philadelphia Times.
Often Americans abroad would write home about their travels, for the edification and amusement of the people who didn’t travel. Florence Kelley herself wrote of the American scene for German magazines and newspapers when she returned from Europe, and while in Europe she wrote about Europe and public opinion in Europe for American newspapers and periodicals. One cause of a serious family break in relations between Florence Kelley and her father was the manner in which some letters she wrote from England on a trip with him were held back from publication.
At one point Congressman Kelley was one of the richest men in Philadelphia. The family home, The Elms where Florence Kelley spent her childhood, on Parrish Street and 41st, four miles from the center of Philadelphia, was a large and elegant country house. Later, he lost money on some investments, and was briefly touched with scandal on another financial matter. He had a lifelong reputation for integrity and honesty and was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing or conflict of interest.
At his death from cancer in 1890, after long and painful suffering, William Darrah Kelley left a modest estate of some $30,000. By the time of his death, Florence Kelley, her husband, and her family were living in New York and themselves strapped for money. Unpleasant squabbles over money preceded his death and clouded family relationships when Florence Kelley lived in New York prior to moving to Chicago with her children.
William Darrah Kelley’s death notices mention of a daughter in Philadelphia by his first marriage, that wife having died in childbirth along with another daughter. Florence Kelley did have a relationship with her half sister Hannah, who married and lived in Philadelphia. At some point Florence Kelley’s half sister Hannah and William Darrah Kelley’s sister came to live with the Congressman and his family at The Elms in the large house outside of Philadelphia.