Van Ens: The post office once packed a political punch (column) |

Van Ens: The post office once packed a political punch (column)

Jack Van Ens

Stamp collectors remember how the post office engaged in fierce partisan politics over slavery in the 1830s and ‘40s. Such politicking about mailing unsolicited antislavery literature to Southern leaders may surprise non-stamp collectors. They regard this hobby as laid-back and dignified rather than a springboard for political wrangling.

Historically-challenged citizens are jarred to learn that in the 1830s the post office flung itself into our nation’s most violent political controversy — slavery.

Prior to the Civil War, the U.S. Postmaster General occupied a presidential cabinet seat. He served in one of the federal government’s most powerful posts. The post office wielded enormous political clout because it employed more workers than other government branches. The Postmaster General dispensed plumb patronage jobs.

Northern abolitionist societies stirred Southern passions by mailing tabloids and broadsides denouncing slavery across the Mason-Dixon Line. Southerners countered, landing political punches against adversaries. They packed a wallop by offering a $200,000 bounty, a huge sum in the 1830s, on Arthur Tappan, a Northern business tycoon who financed abolitionist attacks in print.

Panic and violence erupted in Charleston, South Carolina, during 1835 after abolitionist circulars arrived by ship into port.

The North’s Anti-Slavery Society aimed to convert slaveholders by the power of the written word. Dubbed the “Great Postal Campaign,” this controversial effort is considered the first direct-mail outreach.

Hearing of the abolitionist literature’s arrival, Southern vigilantes broke into the post office and seized the offending anti-slavery tracts. They used force against the spread of abolitionist literature, what Postmaster Amos Kendall blasted as part of “a wicked plan of exciting the negroes to insurrection and to massacre.”

Southern agents infiltrated the North. They harassed abolitionist lecturers, destroyed their presses and disrupted anti-slavery caucuses.

Mailing abolitionist literature to the South caused a nasty political backlash.

Southerners hated these mailings. Anti-slavery literature undermined the plantation economy and challenged Dixie’s biblical interpretations. Before the Civil War, Southerners prided themselves as God-fearing folk who took the Bible literally. Scripture accepts slave culture as a given. The Bible does not contain a single verse that specifically condemns slavery. Only after considering over-arching biblical themes about human dignity is the case for slavery weakened.

Moreover, the South needed cheap workers to harvest labor-intensive crops, such as tobacco and cotton. Dixie’s economic system would collapse without slaves working in fields. Exporting cotton remained the largest U.S. cash crop until the early 20th century.

President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) curtailed emancipation-themed mail to the South. “Jackson, who owned one hundred slaves, denounced the abolitionist mass mailings in his seventh Annual Message to Congress in December 1835,” writes historian Joseph Wheelan.

“He (Jackson) urged Congress to pass a censorship law permitting post offices to stop delivery of the literature. The mailing campaign, he said, was clearly calculated to provoke insurrection among slaves” (Mr. Adams’ Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams’ Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress, Public Affairs: New York, p. 96).

The president ordered southern postmasters to destroy abolitionist literature that caused political friction. Postmaster General Amos Kendall delivered on this order, even though federal postal law had no exceptions to guaranteeing the mail’s security.

The next time a stamp collector mounts stamps on album pages or sends a letter, remember the literary dynamite that exploded in the 1830s through the mail. Then the post office caused national debate, riots, destruction of property, religious squabbles and a presidential gag rule protecting slavery.

These mailed political attacks packed punch, in contrast to those who today regard stamp collecting as a quiet, uncontroversial hobby.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.