We often seem to think our own times are the most turbulent, and when it comes to social issues it’s fair to say that now is certainly more than a little unsettled.
But U.S. history is studded with eras when controversy over social issues has driven the nation’s political dialog. The 19th century was particularly unsettled, and in its first half, none other than the U.S. Post Office found itself embroiled in two of the hottest of hot button issues of the day: abolitionism and a growing religious evangelical movement.
The postal service didn’t seek out these issues, of course. Instead, the issues were thrust upon the service by social and political forces far outside its control. In the end, uneasy compromises were struck that left many far from satisfied.
These days, there are a lot of issues plaguing the postal service, many inflicted on it by Congress and even more of them by the current postmaster general, Louis DeJoy. While DeJoy is seeming to weaken the postal service in what appears to be an effort to boost privatization of mail deliveries, at least we don’t have to worry about postal officials opening and censoring our mail. At least as far as we know.
Not so back in the 1830s, when pro-slavery postal officials as well as private citizens were engaged in efforts to stop abolitionist tracts from being mailed to residents of southern states.
For instance, on the night of July 29, 1835, a small group of men broke into the Charleston, S.C. post office and stole a huge pile of anti-slavery tracts, a mass mailing sent by the American Anti-Slavery Society to persuade Southerners to renounce slavery. The next night, the tracts were burned.
It was the opening move in an increasingly bitter, and ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to make sure the idea of slavery would not see any opposing viewpoints in the South and so threaten the region’s dependence on slave labor. Actually, the mailing was probably the first use of junk mail, made possible by the combination of new, more efficient papermaking techniques and the perfection of the steam-powered printing press along with the era’s remarkably efficient postal service, efficiencies ironically created by Southerners.
It was already illegal in slave-owning states to circulate abolitionist literature, no matter what that pesky First Amendment to the Constitution said. The gang that stole those anti-slavery tracts in Charleston were convinced they were upholding state’s rights.
The Anti-Slavery Society had targeted its mass mailing carefully to the 200,000 most distinguished movers and shakers in the South, figuring—incorrectly as it turned out—that mail to important men would at least be delivered. What actually happened was that pro-slavery forces were energized even more than before.
And it didn’t take long after that for Southern postmasters to simply start interdicting the mail on their own, with no gang of thieves necessary to encourage the process, and with the full cooperation and assistance of the Post Office Department itself. Abolitionist tracts, newspapers, and magazines were simply turned over to local officials for destruction, with First Amendment rights considered inferior to the right of whites to own black slaves and not be criticized for it.
The issue’s importance to the South did not wane as years passed either. In 1849, George H. Legg, the postmaster in Spartanburg, S.C., was jailed by local officials for his refusal to turn over a letter for inspection by local pro-slavery groups.
The resulting abridgment of First Amendment rights that prohibited mailing anti-slavery literature to the South was only lifted following the Civil War after the issue of slavery itself was settled by force of arms.
The case of the Sabbatarians was also a national issue on which the post office found itself on the wrong side thanks to its insistence on delivering the mail as quickly and efficiently as possible to everyone everywhere in the nation.
In order to make sure the mails reached post offices as quickly as possible in those days of mail carried in horsedrawn stagecoaches, the system operated seven days a week. The arrival of the stagecoach carrying the mail was a major social and economic event, especially for those living in the small towns like the ones that were springing up here in northern Illinois on what was then the western frontier.
When the coaches neared a settlement with a post office, the drivers blew their long tin or sheet iron horns to herald the mail’s arrival. The sound of the horn was the signal for anyone who could to get to the post office to see if any letters for them had arrived, and to listen to others read aloud the latest political and social news from the newspapers and magazines the coaches carried.
Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan, wife of famed Civil War General John A. Logan, recalled the thrill of hearing the stage driver’s horn when she was a young girl living in southern Illinois in the 1840s. Her father had enlisted to fight in the war with Mexico and the family was starved for news.
“I can to this day in imagination hear the sound of the long horn the stage-driver used to blow as he entered our town at the midnight hour twice a week,” she wrote in her memoirs. “I was then but twelve years of age, and yet at the first sound of the horn, in moonlight or darkness, I would rush out and never stop running till I reached the post-office.”
On most days, this rush to the post office—which in the 1830s and 1840s was often located in a community’s general store or local inn—was eagerly looked forward to by all residents. However, when the coach arrived on a Sunday, ministers saw the male halves of their congregations evaporate at the sound of the coach driver’s horn as they hurried down to the post office to hear the latest news.
The discontent caused for the more religious members of communities by the disruptions created by the Sunday arrival of the mails resulted in the Sabbatarian movement, which aimed at halting Sunday mail delivery.
In April 1810, Congress had decreed that postmasters were required to deliver every item they’d received in the mail on every day of the week, including Sunday—the Sabbath—and to open their offices every day the mail arrived. Including Sunday.
The opposition to the new law grew swiftly and the loosely organized opposition’s members became known as Sabbatarians.
Not only did the Sabbatarians want the mandate to open post offices every day of the week eliminated, but they also opposed the mails even moving on Sundays. And that threatened to have an economic impact on not only the businesses that relied on frequent, fast mail deliveries, but also the private contractors who carried the mails via stagecoaches and wagons.
The Sabbatarian campaign grew for the next 20 years, with petition after petition (many at the instigation of the Presbyterian General Assembly) being dispatched to the post office department demanding cessation of Sunday delivery.
But by the late 1820s, the anti-Sabbatarian movement, one of whose leaders was a Wall Street merchant with the marvelous name of Preserved Fish, had begun to grow as well. Fish and his allies organized their own petition drives, even helped by some religious groups, such as the Alabama Baptist Association, that treated Saturday as the Sabbath.
Also joining the fray was travel book author Anne Royall, whose books hinted darkly at a conspiracy by Sabbatarian Presbyterian postmasters to destroy the separation of church and state.
Finally in 1841 the Sabbatarians were able to get the post office to curtail Sunday service on some routes. The invention of the telegraph also helped the Sabbatarian cause as merchants soon found electronic communication of vital economic news faster, though more expensive, than the mails.
Amazingly enough, it wasn’t until 1912—a little over a century after the Sabbatarians’ campaign started—that the post office finally agreed to halt mail delivery and order the closure of all post offices on Sunday.
Today, the postal service is still struggling to survive, although it no longer has to worry about the combined assaults of pro-slavery forces and the Sabbatarians. Which, I suppose, might be mistaken for progress by some. The main threat to the postal service today is its own top management and Congressional privatizers, who all seem determined to sabotage efficient mail delivery in an apparent effort to entice private companies to take over delivering the mail.