Don't mess with the mail

Don't mess with the mail

Donald Trump isn't the first president to politicize the U.S. Postal Service, writes Russell Riley

If Donald Trump decides to tamper with the federal mail system to advance his own political aims, he would not be the first president to do so. Indeed the best example of how the mails can be manipulated by a president for political purposes occurred during the administration of one of the few presidents that Trump appears to revere: Andrew Jackson. Although it is unlikely that anybody in the current White House knows anything of this history, the president seems to be taking a decidedly Jacksonian approach to using the post office as a political tool. (A more detailed version of this story appears in the author’s The Presidency and the Politics of Racial Inequality: Nation-keeping from 1831 to 1965.)

It was during Jackson’s first term in office that a national movement for the abolition of slavery began to coalesce. Those seeking to free American slaves—associated most prominently with New Englander William Lloyd Garrison—faced a daunting puzzle: What tools were available to people outside the South, where most of the slaves were held, to secure their liberation? In those days, nobody could foresee what actually did happen—a nationally enforced program of liberation directed by the president of the United States, secured by cannon fire and bayonets.

The abolitionists’ considered solution to this problem was termed “moral suasion”—or what today we’d call a public relations campaign. Rather than trying to organize political action to force state governments in the South to outlaw slavery legislatively, the abolitionists would approach individual slaveholders directly to try to convince them of the error of their ways, one by one by one.

But there was still a problem. How was it possible, given the technology of that age, to get the right message into the hearts of the target audience? This is where the United States postal system became essential.

Antislavery activists in the early 1830s had developed a vibrant array of newspapers, aided by the serendipitous advent of the steam-driven press. Importantly, most of these newspapers were delivered by post. The strategy of moral suasion, then, depended on using the American post office to send mass quantities of antislavery publications from their sources in northern communities to the American South.

Unsurprisingly, many southerners were unhappy to have their incoming mail tainted with what they considered unsolicited pornography. The Columbia, South Carolina, Telescope printed a representative rejoinder: “The very moment any private individual attempts to lecture us upon [slavery’s] evils and immorality, and the necessity of putting measures into operation to secure us from them, in the same moment his tongue shall be cut out and cast upon the dung-hill.”

These tensions exploded in the summer of 1835. A packet ship arrived in Charleston harbor from New York, containing a heavy cargo of antislavery publications, some addressed to the city’s most esteemed figures. When the contents of the shipment became public knowledge, a mob of 3,000 broke into the post office, extracted the offending papers, and burned them in a massive bonfire. 

This riot was a problem not just for the abolitionists, but for the postal department, which had a fiduciary obligation to deliver the mail undamaged. The Charleston postmaster, having failed in this mission, issued an urgent appeal to Washington for guidance. While Postmaster General Amos Kendall fidgeted—noting that the law did not give him the authority to make distinctions between what could and could not be conveyed once parcels were submitted for delivery—President Jackson spit bullets. There was no way he—a slaveholder himself—was going to do anything to support the abolitionist radicals, notwithstanding his Article II obligations to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The president’s response was a masterclass in shirking.

Jackson devised on the fly a strategy of avoidance, based on equal measures of bureaucratic subterfuge and flagrant rhetoric. “I have read with sorrow and regret,” he wrote Kendall, in language well-suited for Twitter, “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. Could they be reached, they ought to be made to atone for this wicked attempt with their lives.”

After this intemperate preface endorsing vigilante justice, Jackson issued the following extra-legal instructions: “[W]e can do nothing more than direct that those inflammatory papers be delivered to none but who will demand them as subscribers; and in every instance the Postmaster ought to take the names down, and have them exposed thro the publik journals as subscribers to this wicked plan of exciting the negroes to insurrection and massacre. This would bring those in the South, who were patronizing these incendiary works into such disrepute with all the South, that they would be compelled to desist, or move from the country.” Jackson, confronted with a law he did not wish to execute, simply invented alternatives out of whole cloth.

Although there was little evidence that slaves—most of whom were illiterate—were actually receiving these publications, Jackson repeatedly warned that the abolitionist materials would provoke a race war. He even included the charge in his 1835 annual message, an extraordinary violation of the norms of the time. The American Antislavery Society was appalled at being accused of such offenses in that official setting, decrying charges “published to the nation and to the world, made part of our enduring archives, and incorporated in the history of the age.” But the president’s actions effectively helped to undermine the moral suasion campaign.

Ultimately Jackson’s innovations rested firmly upon a firmament of fear. What he understood was that although his new policies had no warrant in law, nobody would be inclined to challenge him seriously, because the matters at issue were so explosive—and because nobody could match the administrative powers at the president’s disposal, nor exceed the president’s willingness to exploit popular passions to sustain his privileged position.

If Donald Trump decides to undermine the integrity of the American postal service to enhance his electoral chances this fall, he will undoubtedly do so based on the same premises.