The president was furious. He feared that his political opponents were using the United States mail to rally opposition in the South in advance of the presidential election. His postmaster general called the activists “most flagitious,” and promised to stop them with “as little noise and difficulty as possible,” though he tactfully ignored the president’s threat that they “ought to be made to atone for this wicked attempt with their lives.”
The year was 1835, and the president was Andrew Jackson, a portrait of whom President Donald Trump keeps in the Oval Office. And while Trump’s attempt to undermine the United States Post Office to restrict mail-in voting may be unprecedented, the US post office — and the values it embodies — has frequently been in the political crosshairs. The post office has always been the public network by which the United States built its common political culture — and fought over just what that culture would be.
“The mail is a uniquely public institution at the national level,” historian David Henkin, author of The Postal Age, told BuzzFeed News. “From the start, the mail system was supposed to bring the country together.”
And from the start, that institution has been under threat. President Trump’s attack on the Postal Service may be new for him — sounding the alarm about voter fraud — a claim without any proof to support it, while Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has ended overtime pay and removed some sorting machines just months prior to an election in which 80 million Americans are expected to use the USPS to cast their ballots.
The crisis may look unique, but throughout the history of the United States, politicians have tried to use the power of the postal network to shape the country — because the mail is never just the mail.
On July 26, 1775, the Second Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin as postmaster general. He had some experience, having previously been named postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737 and joint postmaster of the colonies in 1753. At the time, the post office’s job was not so much delivering personal letters, but rather information in the form of newspapers. And Franklin mandated that it be a neutral carrier, requiring local postmasters to deliver all of them, regardless of their politics. In 1774, the British government dismissed him, correctly fearing that he would be too sympathetic to the brewing rebellion.
After the revolution, said Henkin, the post office was intended to continue to function as that kind of information clearinghouse, allowing a diffuse population of white landholders access to information: “The post office was really set up as a news broadcast service in the 1790s. They envisioned a dispersed nation where people could still participate.”
In 1835, abolitionists tested the post office’s neutrality — and found that its practice fell far short of its legal mandate. That year, in what has been called “America’s first direct-mail campaign,” the American Anti-Slavery Society, led by William Lloyd Garrison, mailed thousands of copies of their newspapers and magazines to white people in the South, hoping to build support for emancipation.
Drawing on what was then the height of technology — the steam-powered printing presses — they sent what one estimate put at 175,000 separate pieces of mail, roughly equal to the entire output of Southern periodicals during the same time, to 20,000 Southerners.
The campaign provoked a backlash, most notably in Charleston, where the postmaster, a federal employee, was legally bound to distribute the mail. But a South Carolina law required him to turn over material that might incite a rebellion by enslaved people. According to the historian W. Sherman Savage, the penalties for Black people caught with the newspapers would be severe: a $1,000 fine for the first offense, 50 lashes for the second, and for the third, death.
And the backlash from the white power structure was equally severe.
“On Wednesday, July 29, 1835, at some point between 10:00 and 11:00 P.M., a small group of men broke into the post office in Charleston, South Carolina, by forcing open a window with a crowbar,” wrote the historian Richard R. John. “The intruders belonged to a Charleston vigilante society known as the ‘Lynch Men,’ and the purpose of their assault was to destroy the bundle of several thousand abolitionist periodicals that the steamboat Columbia had brought to the Charleston post office earlier that day.”
On Thursday night, the Lynch Men burned those newspapers and magazines in a bonfire that “was watched by a loud and enthusiastic crowd of 2,000, roughly one-seventh of the entire white population of the city,” John wrote, on the parade grounds next to the state’s military college, the Citadel.
Deepening the crisis, the New York postmaster declared himself bound by South Carolina’s laws, refusing to distribute the abolitionist mail. His legal grounds were weak, but he later said he felt vindicated because Garrison and his allies never sued him.
That solution satisfied Postmaster General Amos Kendall, who informed both postmasters to ignore federal law: “We owe an obligation to the law but a higher one to the communities in which we live and if the former be prevented to destroy the latter, it is patriotism to disregard them,” he wrote to the Charleston postmaster.
While that informal censorship of abolitionism continued until the Civil War, it was never enshrined in law — quite the opposite: Congress debated changing the law to either outlaw mailing abolitionist publications or to reinforce states’ rights to prevent them from circulation. But Congress did neither, instead passing a bill — that President Jackson signed into law — that reaffirmed that the mail should circulate without impediment, a commitment as honored in the breach as observed.
Following the Civil War, in which he fought as a Union soldier, Anthony Comstock became the United States postal inspector. An anti-vice crusader (and chronic masturbator), he spent his life battling alcohol consumption, fake medicine, gambling, women’s suffrage, and sexually explicit material — using the power of the post office to carry out his agenda.
In 1873, he persuaded Congress to pass the Comstock Act, which defined contraceptives as “obscene and illicit” and made it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines.
Comstock took his task, which included the suppression of pornography, fanatically. According to one history, “within a year of the Comstock law’s enactment, he made 55 arrests under the new law, and he had a scar on his face from an encounter with a knife-wielding pornographer in Newark, New Jersey, whom he still managed to subdue.”
He also attempted to use his power over the mail to stifle reproductive freedom. Near the end of his life, he pressured Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger to flee to Canada over violations of the Comstock law, which was not overturned until the 1960s in a pair of Supreme Court cases.
Only two years after the second of those rulings, the head of the post office was removed from the presidential cabinet, and the system reorganized into the United States Postal Service, which from then on would be expected to make a profit, unlike any other arm of the government. From there it’s just a hop and a jump to the present crisis.
It may be a touch overstated to put, as a Salon headline did, that “neoliberalism is crushing your mailman,” but the post office was on the leading edge of the wave of government privatization.
And that’s proved a difficult task, not only because of competition from Amazon, UPS, and electronic communications, but also because of a 2006 law in which Congress mandated that USPS pay in advance for future retirement benefits. The system has not turned a profit since then.
“Government has become a partisan issue,” said Henkin. “When one of the two parties is railing against every public function that isn’t related to crime or national security, you can see how the post office could become a partisan symbol, notwithstanding its long association with the commons.”
It’s that retreat from the commons that Democrats have charged is at the heart of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s changes at the agency. Former president Barack Obama called them an attempt to “kneecap” the postal service to lower voting rates. DeJoy is a former logistics business executive who retains a seat on the board of XPO Logistics, a USPS contractor, and has a multimillion-dollar stake in the firm. He is said to have been easily convinced to have taken the job as postmaster general, vowing to run the organization like a business.
So when DeJoy testifies in front of the House Oversight Committee on Aug. 24, he won’t be doing it as a business executive, but as a politician running a political agency.