At a time when partisans on either side of a debate want to sidestep the Constitution for temporary gain, it’s worth reflecting on times when constitutional fidelity was taken seriously. One of the more fascinating and less known incidents was in 1835, when the postmaster of Charleston, South Carolina requested an opinion from U.S. Postmaster General Amos Kendall about whether he had to distribute abolitionist literature in his state.
The distribution of such literature proved controversial, as many Southerners feared it would incite slave rebellions. But, it was considered by abolitionists to be an effective and powerful means of influencing public opinion throughout the country.
As the American Antiquarian writes:
As veterans of the Bible and religious tract movements, the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) believed in the power of the printed word to convert sinners, including those whose sin was slaveholding. Immediately after its founding in 1833, the society began publishing a broad range of newspapers, tracts, circulars, and periodicals.
Within two years, AASS was printing more than a million copies a year. In 1835, the society launched a dramatic effort, dubbed the Great Postal Campaign, to flood the South with antislavery tracts and periodicals. This has sometimes been called America’s first direct-mail campaign. In the South the result was not conversion but outrage and hysteria. Though federal postal law guaranteed the security of the mail, Postmaster General Amos Kendall (1789-1869), a close ally of President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), gave permission to Southern postmasters to refuse delivery of abolitionist materials.
President Andrew Jackson, who supported the decision, then called on Congress to make that policy federal law during his 1835 State of the Union Address.
“In connection with these provisions in relation to the Post-Office Department, I must also invite your attention to the painful excitement produced in the South by attempts to circulate through the mails inflammatory appeals addressed to the passions of the slaves, in prints and in various sorts of publications, calculated to stimulate them to insurrection and to produce all the horrors of a servile war. There is doubtless no respectable portion of our countrymen who can be so far misled as to feel any other sentiment than that of indignant regret at conduct so destructive of the harmony and peace of the country, and so repugnant to the principles of our national compact and to the dictates of humanity and religion.”
In his paper Reversing Incorporation, Ilan Wurman recounts that Jackson’s proposal was defeated in Congress by a coalition of Northerners along with some Southerners led by none other than John C. Calhoun — well-known for his support of the institution of slavery.
Why did some Southerners support a policy that potentially undermined slavery?
Because, they argued, Congress had no authority under the Constitution to censor or restrict free speech.
It’s important to note the frame of their argument. Calhoun and other Southerners were not arguing that they agreed with the abolitionist material or that they wanted it distributed in their states. That wasn’t the point.
Calhoun was insightful enough to see that the issue wasn’t abolition versus slavery. It was about whether the Constitution delegated the federal government the authority to make a determination on allowable speech — a matter that prior to the Constitution’s ratification belonged to the states.
The answer was, of course, that it had no such authority.
Wurman writes that “the Southerners worried that if the federal government could prohibit abolitionist literature on the ground that it was incitement to insurrection then it could also decide that this same literature was not incitement, a risk the Southern governments were unwilling to take.”
In other words, if Congress had the power to ban anti-slavery messages because it might incite “insurrection,” it could later require such messaging to be allowed by the states. Once the federal government claimed the power to make that determination, it would never go away, and that power could be used to conclude any literature the current government didn’t like was “inciting insurrection” and ban its distribution.
This nuance was reflected in how Southern states later sought to address the controversy. Rather than have Congress censor the mail, Calhoun and several Southern states called on Northern states to enact such policies themselves.
People can obviously oppose their views, but the important lesson is how it was handled. Calhoun did not seek to wield the power of the federal government in an unconstitutional manner in order to censor speech he did not like. He understood the implications it would have down the line. He was protecting the power of the states against a centralized government.
It’s a perspective many today should consider before they turn to the federal government to exercise illegal powers for short-term gain.