Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Assorting the Mail

Lacy K. Ford's Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South includes an illuminating description and discussion of the 1835 abolition mail campaign and its aftermath. I'd like to focus on just one aspect, the federal legislative response.

As you may know, in mid-1835 the American Anti-Slavery Society used the United States mails to send tens of thousands of abolitionist pamphlets into the south. When the literature first arrived in Charleston at the end of July, the local postmaster, Alfred Huger, declined to distribute it and kept it locked in the post office. Meanwhile, he wrote to interim United States Postmaster and Andrew Jackson confidante Amos Kendall asking him for instructions. Kendall responded that Huger was not required to deliver the mail if local “circumstances” suggested otherwise.

When Congress met in early December 1835, President Jackson proposed a straightforward solution: legislation that would ban the mailing of abolitionist literature. John C. Calhoun, however, found the president's proposal unsettling: any government strong enough to thwart abolition was strong enough to promote it. Calhoun therefore advanced his own, federalist solution, “a bill giving every state the power to refuse to deliver any mail that ran contrary to the laws of the individual state.”

As it turned out, neither proposal passed. Instead, Congress ultimately enacted a bill that “declared that the federal government would protect the inviolability of the mail."

Although the bill appeared to be a triumph for freedom of expression and civil liberties, in fact it was never enforced in the south. As a practical matter, southern postmasters continued to observe the original Kendall advice that gave them discretion whether to deliver materials that were perceived to be incendiary.

This result left most of the south satisfied. Prof. Ford, however, agrees with Calhoun that it left the south vulnerable:
[A]s William Freehling pointed out, a president who allowed the mail to be stopped could also order that the mail be delivered. The failure of Calhoun's bill and the success of Kendall's informal policy seemed to put the future of the South in the hands of every incumbent president. This fact raised the stakes of the presidential contest to new heights in the minds of white southerners, and southern interest in the contest became and remained almost obsessive. Not the least danger Abraham Lincoln presented to the slaveholding states when elected in 1860 was the possibility that he might simply declare that the mail must go through.

About the illustration:
A portrayal of the nocturnal raid on the Charleston post office by a mob of citizens and the burning of abolitionist mails found there in July 1835. Mail sacks are handed through a forced window of the ransacked post office, torn open and bundles of newspapers such as "The Liberator," the Boston "Atlas" and "Commercial Gazette" removed and strewn about. At left, in an open square before a church, a crowd surrounds a bonfire. A sign reading "$20,000 Reward for Tappan" hangs on the wall of the post office, referring to the bounty placed by the city of New Orleans on the head of Arthur Tappan, founder and president of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

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