Abolitionist Pamphlet Campaign

Mailing of "Incendiary" Pamphlets Created a Crisis in 1835

Illustration of abolitionist pamphlets being burned in South Carolina.
A mob broke into a post office and burned abolitionist pamphlets in Charleston, South Carolina. Fotosearch/Getty Images

In the summer of 1835 the growing abolitionist movement attempted to influence public opinion in pro-slavery states by mailing thousands of anti-slavery pamphlets to addresses in the South. The material inflamed southerners, who broke into post offices, seized bags of mail containing the pamphlets, and made a spectacle of burning the pamphlets in the streets as mobs cheered.

The mobs of southerners interfering with the postal system created a crisis at the federal level. And the battle over use of the mails illuminated how the issue of enslavement was splitting the nation decades before the Civil War.

In the North, calls to censor the mails were naturally seen as a violation of Constitutional rights. In the pro-slavery states of the South, the literature produced by the American Anti-Slavery Society was viewed as a dire threat to southern society.

On a practical level, the local postmaster in Charleston, South Carolina, requested guidance from the postmaster general in Washington, who essentially dodged the issue.

After a spasm of demonstrations in the South, in which effigies representing abolitionist leaders were burned as anti-slavery pamphlets and thrown into bonfires, the battleground moved on to the halls of Congress. President Andrew Jackson even mentioned the mailing of the pamphlets in his annual message to Congress (the forerunner of the State of the Union Address).

Jackson advocated suppressing the literature by having federal authorities censor the mails. Yet his approach was challenged by an eternal rival, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who advocated for local censorship of federal mail.

In the end, the campaign of the abolitionists to mail pamphlets southward was essentially abandoned as being impractical. The immediate issue of censoring the mails died out, and the abolitionists changed tactics and began to concentrate on sending petitions to Congress to advocate for the end of enslavement.

Strategy of the Pamphlet Campaign

The idea of mailing thousands of anti-slavery pamphlets into the pro-slavery states began to take hold in the early 1830s. The abolitionists couldn't send human agents to preach against enslavement, as they would be risking their lives.

And, thanks to the financial backing of the Tappan brothers, wealthy New York City merchants who had become devoted to the abolitionist cause, the most modern printing technology was made available to spread the message.

The material produced, which included pamphlets and broadsides (large sheets designed to be passed around or hung as posters), tended to have woodcut illustrations depicting the horrors of enslavement. The material may look crude to modern eyes, but in the 1830s it would have been considered fairly professional printed material. And the illustrations were particularly inflammatory to southerners.

As those enslaved tended to be illiterate (as was generally mandated by law), the existence of printed material showing enslaved people being whipped and beaten was seen as particularly inflammatory. Southerners claimed the printed material from the American Anti-Slavery Society was intended to provoke uprisings.

And knowing the abolitionists had the funding and personnel to turn out printed material of substantial quality was disturbing to pro-slavery Americans.

End of the Campaign

The controversy over censoring the mails essentially ended the pamphlet campaign. Legislation to open and search the mails failed in Congress, but local postmasters, with the tacit approval of their superiors in the federal government, still suppressed the pamphlets.

Ultimately, the American Anti-Slavery Society accepted that mass-mailing pamphlets into the pro-slavery states simply wasn't going to work as a tactic and was simply a waste of resources. And, as the abolitionists saw it, their campaign had attracted attention and their point had been made.

The anti-slavery movement began to concentrate on other initiatives, most prominently the campaign to create strong anti-slavery action in the House of Representatives. The campaign to submit petitions about enslavement to Congress began in earnest, and eventually led to a crisis on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress from the pro-slavery states were able to enact what became known as the "gag rule" which prohibited discussion of issues of enslavement in the House of Representatives.

The pamphlet campaign may have only lasted for about a year, but it was an important point in the history of anti-slavery sentiment in America. By agitating against the horrors of enslavement it provoked a reaction which brought the issue to a wide public.