During the 19th century, Jackson also politicized the Postal Service, in the hopes of advancing the campaign of his chosen successor, Martin Van Buren, and protecting his interests and those of his fellow enslavers. While his cause was different from Trump’s, he too hoped to suppress the will of a segment of the American population for political gain.
During Jackson’s second presidential term (1833-37), abolitionists undertook a coordinated mailing campaign to flood Southern states with items denouncing slavery. The campaign prompted widespread public protest and attention throughout the South. Many communities held anti-abolition meetings; some even burned the abolitionist mailings publicly. The common theme of the meetings was that the material — “wicked,” “criminal” and “inflammatory” — intended to encourage enslaved African Americans to advocate their freedom.
Postmaster General Amos Kendall, an enslaver himself, sent Southern postmasters vague instructions that they were to withhold the abolitionist material unless subscribers requested its delivery.
He asked Jackson for advice on the decision. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the president — who continued to buy and sell enslaved African Americans to work his Nashville plantation, the Hermitage — assured Kendall that he had made the right choice.
In a private letter sent Aug. 9, 1835, Jackson himself denounced the “monsters” who were using the items “to stir up amongst the South the horrors of a servile war” and called for them “to atone for this wicked attempt, with their lives.” He also recommended that Southern postmasters make a list of the people in their communities who wanted the material so that they could be “exposed” in the media “as subscribers to this wicked plan of exciting the negroes to insurrection and to massacre.” Jackson hoped that his fellow White Southerners would force those sympathetic to the abolitionist cause to “desist” in their support of freedom for enslaved people “or move from the country.” Instead of trying to be a leader for all Americans, Jackson used the language of an enslaver who saw the threat that holding out hope of freedom to enslaved people posed not just to his livelihood but also to his entire way of life.
Jackson also defended Kendall’s actions in his annual message to Congress that December. He argued that the “inflammatory appeals addressed to the passions of the slaves … [were] calculated to stimulate them to insurrection and to produce all the horrors of a servile war.” He reminded Americans that the United States had been founded on a compromise that allowed slavery. As he often did, Jackson also employed conspiratorial rhetoric in urging Americans to continue resisting “the emissaries from foreign parts who have dared to interfere in this matter.” The president concluded by asking Congress to strengthen executive authority by passing a law making it illegal to distribute abolitionist material via the Post Office.
After extensive debate, Congress refused, citing in part the stifling of free speech and the expansion of executive authority that would result.
While Jackson’s racism was part of the reason he politicized the Post Office, he had another related consideration in mind: If abolitionists were able to make slavery a focus of the upcoming election, then the Democratic nominee for president, then-Vice President Van Buren, might find his campaign in trouble. Jackson knew that White Southern voters were already suspicious of Van Buren, who hailed from New York, a state that had abolished slavery, and if the issue took center stage in the campaign, voters might revolt against him.
Ironically, Van Buren had founded the Democratic Party as a national coalition of “the planters of the South and the plain Republicans of the North” precisely to avoid politically divisive issues such as slavery.
Despite Jackson’s efforts, slavery became a campaign topic, and Van Buren repeatedly faced questions about how he would handle it. A month after Jackson approved of Kendall’s handling of the abolitionist mailings, Van Buren defended his stance on slavery by referencing his earlier support of a New York legislative resolution that stated “the relation of master and enslaved person is a matter belonging exclusively to the people of each state within its own boundary.”
Van Buren ultimately won the 1836 election, but his strength in the South was weak. Jackson had won 69 percent of Southern voters in 1832; four years later, Van Buren won 47 percent. The perception that Van Buren was weak on slavery undoubtedly changed the minds of some Southern voters, and it contributed to his being a one-term president, revealing that Jackson’s political instincts had been on the mark.
Nonetheless, Jackson’s willingness to use his power as president to dictate what could go through the mail, in the hopes of advancing his political agenda, grossly distorted the purpose of the U.S. Postal Service. The Founders saw it as a pillar for ensuring free political speech for those in power and their opponents, and as a means of binding the nation together. Congress recognized this tie between free political speech and the Postal Service in rejecting Jackson’s proposal to ban abolitionist mailings.
Today, Trump is trying to do something similar. He perceives mail voting as advantageous to his opponents and open to fraud, despite a lack of evidence to support this claim. As such, he’s willing to risk delays in Americans receiving everything from medications to critical payments to advance his political goals. Like Jackson, he’s willing to sacrifice the common good for his personal well-being.
Jackson’s strategy worked. Whether Trump will succeed is up to us.