America’s First Direct Mail Campaign


By Nancy Pope, Head Curator, History Department

In 1835, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) took their campaign to a new level with what could be called the first use of a direct mail campaign. The Society, founded two years earlier by Arthur and Lewis Tappan of New York, mailed a number of anti-slavery newspapers and printed materials to religious and civic leaders in the south. They selected names from newspapers, city directories, and other published lists. The reception for these unordered and mostly unwelcomed publications was swift, widespread, and hostile.

On July 29, the steamer “Columbia” arrived at the Charleston, SC harbor, bringing mail sacks full of abolitionist tracts addressed to city leaders. Charleston postmaster Alfred Huger, torn between his federally-mandated responsibility to deliver the mail and his allegiance to the southern cause, set the abolitionist mail aside. That night a group called the “Lynch Men” broke into the post office and stole those mail bags. The next night, the group led a “celebration” of almost 2,000 spectators in cheering the burning that mail, along with effigies of northern abolitionists.

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Illustration showing the mob pulling abolitionist mail out of the post office to feed their bonfire. A tattered notice for Arthur Tappan, a leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society, is posted on the wall of the building.

In letters to Postmaster General Amos Kendall and New York postmaster Samuel Gouverneur (the items had been mailed from New York City) Huger wrote that nothing could have stopped the offended citizens from seizing the abolitionist mail. In direct opposition to postal law, postmaster Gouverneur agreed to refuse AAS access to the postal system until Postmaster General Kendall ruled on the matter. The Postmaster General’s reply downplayed federal postal laws in favor of states’ rights. Kendall noted that although Huger was a federally-appointed postmaster, he owed a higher allegiance to his community, saying that “if the former be perverted to destroy the latter, it is patriotism to disregard them.”

The Society’s mail campaign was attacked by politicians across the south and sympathetic northern leaders. In his message to Congress of that year, President Andrew Jackson sought legislation to prohibit abolitionist groups from using the postal system to deliver their message south. The administration’s hostility toward the AAS campaign (including federal postal officials’ refusal to chastise southern postmasters for their not delivering legal mail) and a series of state laws created to criminalize sending such “inflammatory” and “seditious” materials into southern states brought an end to the Society’s mail campaign.

The brief 1835 direct mail anti-slavery campaign was relatively short-lived, and unsuccessful in the short run. But it found success in the long run, by spurring the slavery question into wider national debate.


Nancy Pope

About the Author
The late Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.