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Extreme Remedies and the Charleston Mail Crisis of 1835

In the mid-1830s, abolitionists were searching for new ways to get their message to the enslavers in the South. Having already utilized the postal service to much effect, they undertook an even broader mass mailing project that sent the city of Charleston, South Carolina into a rage-filled panic. It was, exclaimed the United States Postmaster Amos Kendall, all part of “a wicked plan of exciting the negroes to insurrection and to massacre.”

Charleston, 1835
Charleston, 1835

Destined For Circulation

The American Anti-Slavery Society had already been sending its publications, unsolicited, to many prominent Southern leaders. Because they were sent by post, there was little that could legally be done to stop it. However, in 1831 the Vigilance Association of Columbia, South Carolina offered a reward of $1,500 for any man caught personally distributing such literature.

That is not to say that legal means were not attempted. In October of that same year, South Carolina’s Attorney-General submitted an indictment against northern abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and editor of The Liberator. A grand jury had ruled against Garrison “for distributing incendiary papers in that State,” and they demanded that the Governor of Massachusetts hand him over. 1Wendell Phillips Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879: The Story of His Life, Volume 1 (New York: The Century Co., 1885) 240-241.

Garrison and other abolitionists were undeterred. In July of 1835, they decided to spread their pamphlets and papers to any white man with an address in South Carolina, focusing mostly upon slaveholders. They knew that such literature had been banned by the state, but hoped that the Federal employees would do their jobs and deliver the mail anyway.

William Lloyd Garrison, 1833.
William Lloyd Garrison, 1833.

The bundles, addressed and stamped, were shipped out of New York City on the Columbia, a cargo steamer with a regular run to Charleston. The first wave of mailings made it to their intended addressees on July 29, but swiftly the recipients returned them to the Post Office. 2Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Harvard University Press, 1995) 257-258.

This mail, reported Charleston’s Southern Patriot, “has come not merely lade, but literally overburthened, with the newspapers called ‘The Emancipator,’ and two tracts entitled ‘The Anti-slavery Record,’ and ‘The Slave’s Friend,’ destined for circulation all over the southern and western country.” They called it “a monstrous abuse of the privilege of public mail.” This was “moral poison,” and they demanded “some mode of prevention … be adopted to abate this nuisance.” 3Southern Patriot (Charleston), July 29. As printed in Niles’ Weekly Register, Volume 48, ed. Hezekiah Niles, 402. This can be found here.

Alfred Huger
Alfred Huger

Destined For Circulation

Alfred Huger, Charleston’s postmaster, sorted the abolitionist tracts from the rest of the mail, placing the former in a large bag set aside. Though an enslaver himself, he was a Federal employee and Unionist in favor of a more centralized form of government. The townspeople, especially the disunionists among them, distrusted Huger. Though he had kept the abolitionist pamphlets back for a day, they figured that his duty was to the Postal Service and not the state of South Carolina. Even though only a few tracts were distributed, word carried the alarm and soon the entire city was aghast.

Unsure of how to proceed, Huger wrote to Amos Kendall, the Postmaster General, for advice on what to do. He also consulted various local Federal offices, gathering their opinions. It was agreed that with tempers flaring, the mail could not safely be delivered. At the end of the day, Huger decided to hold all of the abolitionist mail for a few days until he received a reply from Postmaster General Kendall. 4Lacy K. Ford, Deliver Us From Evil (Oxford University Press, 2009) 482-483.

"New method of assorting the mail, as practised by Southern slave-holders, or attack on the Post Office, Charleston, S.C." - Printed in Boston, 1835.
“New method of assorting the mail, as practised by Southern slave-holders, or attack on the Post Office, Charleston, S.C.” – Printed in Boston, 1835.

Post Office Attacked by the Lynch Men

Believing that soon Charleston would be flooded with such literature, a vigilance committee calling themselves the Lynch Men, took matters into their own hands. Mobs roamed the streets, storming the Catholic church and its school for free black Charlestonians. That same night, the Lynch Men pried open a window in the Post Office, found the sack full of the several thousands of offending papers, and stole it.

The next night, while Huger was still waiting for Kendall’s reply, the Lynch Men burned all of the tracts, along with effigies of Garrison and two others on the Parade Grounds of the arsenal, which would later become the Citadel. Nearly 2,000 joined the mob in the destruction of legal mail. 5Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Harvard University Press, 1995) 259.

The Southern Patriot called the act “premature,” suggesting that they should have waited until hearing from Washington. However, they concluded that “extreme cases require extreme remedies,” should Washington reply that the mailings were indeed legal. “It will never do to allow our mails to be laden with these anarcical publications, while our citizens fold their arms and permit the poison to circulate through all the veins and arteries of society at the south and west.” They then went on to insist that whatever illegal actions had to be taken to stop the legal distribution of mail, “let it be performed in open day light and on the highway, and that persons of responsibility and weight of character be deputed to act in the name and for the good of the whole of the citizens.” 6Southern Patriot, July 29, 1835. As printed in Niles’ Weekly Register, Volume 48, ed. Hezekiah Niles, 403. This can be found here.

Charleston, South Carolina. Post office, East Bay Street, showing the only Palmetto tree in the city. 1865.
Charleston, South Carolina. Post office, East Bay Street, showing the only Palmetto tree in the city. 1865.

A day later, the Catholic Church decided to close its black school in the hope that it would bring the rolling boil of rage to its normal simmer. The city’s priest was accused of being an abolitionist, though that was somewhat quelled when he publicly denounced William Lloyd Garrison as “an enemy.” 7Joseph Kelly, America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March (Overlook Press, 2013.

Across the next four days, until August 1st, the mail continued to come into port and the city grew more and more hostile. Postmaster Huger wrote to the Postmaster in New York, asking him to stop the abolitionists’ mail. Additionally, a council appointed by Charleston to oversee the city during the crisis, agreed to provide safe passage of Huger to and from the docks so that he might collect the mail inside the post office, piling it up until word from Postmaster General Kendall finally arrived from Washington. 8Lacy K. Ford, Deliver Us From Evil (Oxford University Press, 2009) 484.

President Andrew Jackson Wishes Death Upon the Abolitionists

This arrangement continued for several more days, and in the meantime, Kendall received Hugar’s letter, replying on August 4th.

“Upon careful examination of the law,” wrote Kendall, “I am satisfied that the postmaster general has no legal authority to exclude newspapers from the mail, nor prohibit their carriage or delivery on account of their character or tendency, real or supposed.” He reasoned that the writers of the Constitution “probably… thought it not safe to confer on the head of an executive department a power over the press, which might be perverted and abused.”

mail-kendall

But on the other hand, Kendall was “not prepared to direct you to forward or deliver the papers of which you speak.” He took Huger at his word that the papers were, “the most inflammatory and incendiary – and insurrectionary in the highest degree,” but did not read them himself. “Entertaining these views,” he concluded, “I cannot sanction, and will not condemn the step you have taken.” 9Amos Kendall to Alfred Huger, August 4, 1835. As printed in Niles’ Weekly Register, Volume 48, ed. Hezekiah Niles, 448. This can be found here.

In New York, the postmaster agreed to hold all abolitionist mail until Kendall could give his final decision. In Washington, Kendall took up the matter with President Andrew Jackson. “I have read with great sorrow and regret,” replied the President, “that such men live in our happy country – I might have said monsters – as to be guilty of the attempt to stir up amongst the South the horrors of a servile war.” They deserved “to atone for this wicked attempt with their lives.” He told Kendall to deliver “those inflammatory papers … to none but who will demand them as subscribers.” In turn, the names of such subscribers were to be published as supporters of “exciting the negroes to insurrection and to massacre.” 10Andrew Jackson to Amos Kendall, August 9, 1835. Can be found here, as well as quoted in various places.

Later that year, John C. Calhoun proposed a bill that would require the Post Office to enforce the censorship laws of any individual state. In South Carolina’s case, this meant that the Post Office would not be permitted to deliver anti-slavery literature. His bill was defeated by a single vote – that from Vice President Martin Van Buren. 11Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford University Press, 2007) 429.

An excerpt from a Georgia law book circa 1836. Section IV was on the records for years, while Section V was a more recent addition.
An excerpt from a Georgia law book circa 1836. Section IV was on the records for years, while Section V was a more recent addition.

More than the Post Office: The South Reacts

Several months after the postal campaign, a new hatred for abolitionists seemed to emerge across the South. Over 150 anti-abolitionist meetings were held throughout all of the slave states except Delaware and Kentucky. This new fear was voiced by Arthur P. Hayne in a letter to Andrew Jackson. He worried that any literature promoting liberty would incite all to oppose slavery. He explained that “there is in existence unfortunately a restless feeling now at the South … in relation to the Question of Property at the South, and unless this feeling be put to rest, who would desire to live in such a community?” These same Southerners, warned Hayne, “would desert” slavery. 12Arthur P. Hayne to Andrew Jackson, December of 1835. Partially quoted in Joseph Kelly, America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March (Overlook Press, 2013) and William W. Freehling Prelude to Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1965) 343..

By this time, the South Carolinian war against abolition had begun in earnest. Before 1830, all seemed to believe that slavery was an inherent evil that would eventually die off. After it began to spread into the western territories of Mississippi and Alabama, however, it began to flourish anew. The suppression of papers legally mailed by abolitionists was one of the first volleys of this conflict that would not be decided until South Carolina dragged the rest of the South out of the Union and to war.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

4 thoughts on “Extreme Remedies and the Charleston Mail Crisis of 1835

  1. I never knew about this “going postal” in SC over the abolitionist mass mailings prior to your article. It is an important piece to the puzzle in trying to understand the causes of the tragic Civil War and especially the role of South Carolina,where the first shots were fired almost thirty years later. Aside from the serious matter of abolition of slavery, the death sentence for junk mail …huump \?now there’s was an idea.

    1. This is one of those stories that makes me wish I knew a whole lot more about post office history. Was junk mail a thing in the 1830s? Their complaints weren’t about it being unsolicited, but that it had already been censored and was against the law to produce or distribute certain ideas. It’s weird how much they didn’t care about the freedom of the press/freedom of speech. It was almost like they believed that they could nullify any part of the Constitution that they wanted to (except the Fugitive Slave bit, of course). 🙂

  2. I’ve been looking to throw some praise your way for the excellent job you’re doing here and several aspects of this post caught my attention and prompted a comment. One is the fact that it told of an incident that I’d never heard of. The various reactions provide a real feel for the dramatically different ways of thinking that the two sides had early in the century. Another is the frightful Andy Jackson quote. Even more frightening is the fact that it took a vote from the vice president (Good thing it wasn’t the president, eh?) to head off a requirement that the federal government enforce individual state censorship laws. Scary and hard to imagine times.

    1. Thank you so much!

      This was completely unknown to me until it was mentioned as an aside in a book that I was reading – can’t even remember which one. But once I dug into it a bit, I found that there was a whole basket full of wackery going on. It makes me wish that I understood the individual states’ relationship with the Constitution prior to the Civil War. Today, if a state tried to censor something this huge, the outcry that doing so violated the First Amendment would be huge. That didn’t seem to be an issue at all in this case. Neither side mentioned that it violated the Constitution. The only time it came into play was when the Federal Post Office’s hands were tied. It was quite a different political world then.

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