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The 1835 Anti-Abolition Meetings in the South: A New Look at the Controversy over the Abolition Postal Campaign

From: Civil War History
Volume 47, Number 4, December 2001
pp. 289-309 | 10.1353/cwh.2001.0062

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Civil War History 47.4 (2001) 289-309

[Tables]

Sometime after ten o'clock on the evening of Wednesday, July 29, 1835, a local vigilance society known as the Lynch Men assembled at the Exchange building in the heart of Charleston, South Carolina. The group proceeded to the post office, where with "coolness and deliberation" they entered by prying open one of its windows. Passing over the large bags of mail containing ordinary letters and business transactions, the small band headed straight for a sack carefully separated from the rest in the postmaster's office. The sack contained abolitionist newspapers and journals published by the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) in New York; they had arrived in the regular mail packet earlier in the day. The burglars took the bag and left the post office undetected. The following evening, the Lynch Men publicly burned the fruits of their late night raid, along with effigies of three leading abolitionists, in a large bonfire on the parade grounds adjacent to the Citadel, Charleston's military academy. A boisterous crowd of nearly two thousand, roughly one-seventh of the white population of the city, witnessed the spectacle.

The bonfire capped off a day of unrest in the city. The trouble began that morning after the steamship Columbia arrived in Charleston "overflowing with incendiary tracts," according to a local newspaper. Word of the abolition mailings spread quickly throughout the morning as the unwilling recipients angrily returned the publications once they discovered their content. By Wednesday afternoon, Charleston postmaster Alfred Huger had already been confronted by one vigilance committee called the South Carolina Association, whose members included some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the city. Feeling bound by his obligations as a Federal officer to protect the sanctity of the mails, Huger refused to turn over the offending publications to the association, but he agreed to detain the abolition mailings in his office until he received instructions from Postmaster General Amos Kendall. This compromise failed to quell the ire of the public, however, and by early evening an angry mob of two or three hundred--"the most respectable men of all parties," as Huger later described them -- had assembled at the post office to demand the surrender of the "incendiary" publications. The crowd had to be dispersed by a lieutenant of the City Guard. Later that night, the Lynch Men returned to execute the burglary.

Concerned for the security of the large sums of money regularly exchanged by mail between Charleston and New York merchants, Huger wrote frantically for aid to Kendall and to the postmaster of New York, Samuel L. Gouverneur. "It is impossible to restrain the universal indignation that pervades all Classes," he warned; only a "military force greater than the Undivided population of Charleston" could have prevented the determined citizenry from seizing the abolition papers. Huger vowed to continue to perform his official duties "until I am overpower'd" but admitted that he could not guarantee the safety of the mail. "How long one Man can sustain himself in this position, you can easily determine." Gouverneur was sympathetic to Huger's concerns, for he promised not to transmit any abolitionist papers until word arrived from Washington. In the meantime, Huger arranged for a guard to escort the incoming mail safely from the Charleston steamboat landing to the post office. There, any "incendiary" publications would be purged from the mails and quarantined in the postmaster's office. After a tense week of harboring a growing pile of abolitionist papers, Huger's actions received tacit sanction from the Jackson administration. In a pair of public letters to Huger and Gouverneur, Postmaster General Kendall refused to rebuke the Charleston postmaster for seizing the abolitionist publications. While postal officers had an obligation to follow the laws, Kendall argued, they had a "higher" obligation to their communities, and "if the former be perverted to destroy the latter, it is patriotism to disregard them."

Like Jefferson's famed firebell in the night, the abolitionists' postal campaign of 1835 re-ignited the slavery controversy in the South. That summer, the AAS embarked upon an ambitious strategy of propaganda to convert the nation to abolition. Taking advantage...



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