Amos Kendall: Newspapering, the post office and the telegraph

My last post got me to thinking a little bit more closely about the post office and the role it’s played in the nation’s history, not to mention the history of Illinois in general and the Fox River Valley region in particular.

The postal service used to be a purely governmental service, considered so important to the nation that it is just about the only one enumerated in the Constitution. It is also just about the only U.S. Governmental service that was in operation before the nation was established.

On-going political efforts to cripple it have been going on for decades as the privatizing mania swept the nation. Back in the 1970s, the post office was changed from a purely governmental service to a separate money-making operation. Or that was supposed to be the plan, anyway. It was a plan destined for varying amounts of failure since post office workers continued to be employed by the U.S. Government and the post office remained under the control of Congress and thus subject to its political whims and pressure.

But despite the best efforts of its ideological opponents, the postal service just keeps soldiering on, delivering the mail six days a week everywhere in the country for the cost of a postage stamp.

Amos Kendall in an engraving showing what he looked like when serving as Postmaster General under Andrew Jackson, about 1835.

Interestingly enough, Kendall County has a direct, concrete tie to the post office: When it was established by an act of the Illinois General Assembly in February of 1841 from portions of Kane and LaSalle counties it was named after Amos Kendall, former Postmaster General and one of President Andrew Jackson’s most influential advisors.

Kendall County was first proposed to be named Orange County after the area in New York where many of the first settlers came from. But during the establishment process, the name was changed to Kendall County by the General Assembly’s house of representatives.

One of those voting in favor of the name change was Ill. Rep. Abraham Lincoln of Springfield. Since Lincoln was a Whig and Amos Kendall was a Democrat, Kendall must have had some extraordinary qualities.

Which he certainly did.

Amos Kendall was born in 1789, the same year the nation’s first President, George Washington, took office. His parents were farmers living near Dunstable in Middlesex County, Mass.

Kendall was plagued with ill health as a youngster, but nonetheless showed a studious disposition. The other members of the Kendall family, in fact, described him as the scholar of the family.

Amos Kendall graduated from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Kendall attended public school near Dunstable, and then went on to college at Dartmouth. He apparently maintained a studious disposition and the standoffishness many sickly youngsters demonstrate. One classmate described Kendall as a “reserved, priggish boy” during his years at Dartmouth.

Kendall graduated from Dartmouth in 1811, and the young 22 year-old moved to Groton, Conn., where he took a job teaching in the community’s academy, the era’s name for a private high school. While working as a teacher, Kendall also read law with the aim of becoming an attorney.

But he apparently realized that a man without connections in New England, even with a college education, probably would not make a fortune. So he looked West, where there were definitely fortunes to be made.

Kendall decided to head west to Lexington, Ky. He certainly made the right connection when he arrived—he managed to befriend a young law student who turned out to be the great Henry Clay’s brother. This happy accident gave Kendall an entry into one of the most powerful political families in Kentucky.

Richard M. Johnson, military hero and later Vice President under Martin Van Buren.

Possibly through the Clays, Kendall met Col. Richard Johnson, the man credited with killing the great Indian military leader Tecumseh during the Battle of the Thames in the War of 1812. Which was another—admittedly somewhat tenuous—connection with what eventually became Kendall County, because two of Tecumseh’s close advisors were Native American residents of the Fox Valley, chiefs Shabbona and Waubonsee. One of Waubonsee’s favorite village sites was at Oswego along the creek that still carries his name.

But back to Amos Kendall. With Johnson’s sponsorship, Kendall established a newspaper, the Argus of Western America, at Frankfort, Ky. Through Kendall’s writing skill and his good business sense, the Argus quickly became one of the most successful and influential newspapers in the West of that era.

In the words of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Kendall “plunged into Kentucky journalism with celerity, quickly adapting himself to its rugged ways.”

Those “rugged ways” included the necessity of Kendall carrying a large knife and a pistol for personal protection. For an entertaining tale of frontier journalism of that era, read Mark Twain’s “Journalism in Tennessee,” told with Twain’s characteristic dryly outrageous humor. And possibly a touch of exaggeration.

In the real world of the 1820s West, Kendall’s editorial stances aligned him with Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, and in 1828, when the nation’s voters sent “Old Hickory” to Washington, D.C. as President, Kendall went along as part of Jackson’s staff.

Andrew Jackson tapped Amos Kendall to serve as Postmaster General.

He received an appointment as a Treasury Department auditor, quickly discovering his predecessor—happily a Jackson foe—had embezzled $280,000 in government funds. Kendall’s discovery proved to be an accomplishment that marked him for more important jobs in the future.

In fact he hit it off so well with Jackson, that he was soon included as part of the President’s “Kitchen Cabinet.” He also became one of Jackson’s favorite speech writers.

In 1833, Jackson engineered his appointment as Postmaster General. In that job, he reorganized the department’s finances, improved coverage and letter delivery speed, and put the post office on a paying basis for the first time in U.S. history.

Kendall used the profits he’d created to improve and expand postal service throughout the country, including instituting an express mail service that predated the famed, privately operated Pony Express by decades.

Kendall’s Express Mail service carried regular mail and newspaper “slips” along the main New York to New Orleans Great Southern Mail route. Regular mail was carried in the Express Mail at three times the normal postage, while newspaper slips (described as “small parts of newspapers, cut out, or strips specially printed…to convey the latest news, foreign, and domestic”) were carried free of charge from town to town to quickly spread the news.

During that era, newspapers and the news they carried concerning local, state, and national government were considered vital to the proper functioning of a democracy, and thus the government had an interest in seeing that news spread as widely and as quickly as possible. Quite a difference from today’s attitudes towards both government and the press.

President Jackson signed Kendall’s bill creating the Express Mail into law in July 1836, and the service began that same autumn. Within a few weeks, a second express route was added from Philadelphia to Mobile, Ala. In 1837, two Missouri legislators prevailed on Kendall to establish a tributary of the Philadelphia to Mobile express that branched off at Dayton, Ohio and running to St. Louis. The Illinois state capital at Vandalia was on that branch line of the Express Mail.

The daily express mail sped up mail delivery considerably. In 1835, it took letters an average of 11 days and 15 hours to get from New York to Vandalia here in Illinois. Thanks to the Express Mail, that delivery time was cut by almost two-thirds to just 4 days 15 hours a couple years later. Kendall’s Express Mail was phased out starting in 1838 thanks to advances in transportation technology—particular the advent of the nation’s first railroads, and more funding for better roads and bridges.

Kendall also proved to be a political innovator. With post offices spread all over the country, Kendall quickly realized that the position of postmaster in a community could offer the Jackson administration with its own network of loyal people perfectly positioned to report the pulses of the communities they served. To that end, the position of postmaster was made a political job, with the old corps of postmasters loyal to former President John Quincy Adams’ National Republican Party swept out and Jacksonian Democrats swept in. And the concept of a national patronage army was established.

Amos Kendall, about 1845.

Kendall also had his dark side, as did so many political figures of that era, particularly his support for slavery. As Postmaster General, Kendall was personally involved in the refusal to allow the Charleston, S.C. post office to deliver abolitionist pamphlets, as outlined in my last post.

While an organizational genius and a good writer, Kendall was also a bit of an eccentric. He was, while still in his 30s, described as bent, prematurely white- haired, badly dressed, near-sighted, and of sallow complexion with a hacking asthmatic cough. He affected heavy broadcloth coats, even during Washington’s hot summers, and often wore a bandage around his head to ward off headaches.

One observer noted: “Poor wretch; as he rode down Pennsylvania Avenue, he looked like Death on a pale horse.”

Kendall left government service about 1840 (Kendall County was named after him in February 1841), and in 1845 joined Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph firm as business manager. Morse was an inventive genius, but as a businessman, he left quite a bit to be desired. Kendall quickly put Morse’s business to rights, using the organizational genius that had led to the post office department showing a profit.

Donald B. Cole’s 2010 biography, “A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy” finally tells the story of Kendall’s fascinating life.

By the time he retired as a rich man in 1860, Kendall had helped build the company into the nation’s most successful long-distance communications company, the ancestor of today’s AT&T. Kendall had been interested in the education of deaf people for many years, and was one of the founders of and donated the initial land for Gallaudet University. He was also an active Baptist and financed construction of church buildings.

Kendall died Nov. 12, 1869, the last living member of the Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren administrations’ cabinets.

It is unfortunate that we had to wait until 2010 for a Kendall biography to be published, but A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy by Donald B. Cole was worth the wait, and does Kendall the justice he deserves.

A newspaper editor, member of Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” an innovative and efficient Postmaster General, a philanthropist, and a successful and farsighted businessman who saw the value of a new, though untried, communications technology, Kendall led a life many of us would envy.


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Filed under Business, Government, History, Illinois History, Local History, Military History, Native Americans, Newspapers, People in History, Technology, Transportation

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