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.
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.
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.