The opening of post offices on Sunday for the sorting and collection of mail led to a national debate about the relationship of the federal government to the Sabbath day. The argument, which raged from 1810 to 1830, involved whether the national government would exist as a secular commercial republic committed to a separation of church and state or as a Christian commonwealth.
The battle over Sunday mail began in Washington, Pennsylvania, in 1809. The town postmaster, Hugh Wylie, followed the widespread custom of sorting the mail and keeping the post office open on Sunday to allow churchgoers from neighboring towns to pick up their mail after attending church. In this day of primitive transportation and poor roads, many families only came to town on Sunday for church services. For keeping the post office open, the Pittsburgh synod of the Presbyterian Church expelled Wylie. The U.S. postmaster general, Gideon Granger, responded by persuading Congress in 1810 to pass legislation that opened all 2,300 post offices for seven days a week and moved mail every day.
Congress immediately began to receive petitions urging repeal of the law from Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, Congregationalists, and Unitarians. Granger and his successor, Return J. Meigs, were less committed to the post offices remaining open on Sunday than to the transportation of the mail on Sunday. However, the petitioners were unwilling to separate the two issues of Sunday opening and Sunday transportation.
To suspend mail movement on Sunday would damage commerce, as both Granger and Meigs argued. Merchants relied on the rapid, consistent transmission of market information from city to city that could only be provided through the mails. In addition, relations with Great Britain, France, and Spain were strained at this time, and both men raised the national security argument. Granger and Meigs argued that public officials needed to be notified as quickly as possible about events that might affect their constituents. Foreign agents might outrace the federal government with sensitive news if Sunday mail transportation was stopped. Last, both postmasters mentioned the cost issue. Mail coaches often carried passengers with paid fares subsidizing mail transportation. If coaches were forced to stop on Sundays, passengers might find other transportation, and postal rates would therefore increase. The arguments convinced Congress to refuse repeal. All of the bills supporting repeal died by 1817 with no bill even coming to a vote.
In 1828, the General Union for the Promotion of the Christian Sabbath (GUPCS) launched a wellorganized attack on the Postal Act of 1810. The group mobilized merchants to challenge the commercial argument for Sunday mail. It circulated more than 100,000 copies of an anti-Sunday mail talk delivered by the Reverend Lyman Beecher, a founder of the Union. GUPCS boycotted all companies that ran coaches, boats, or canal packets on Sunday, with New Jersey members once stopping a mail coach and forcing the driver to stay in town until Monday morning. Members also circulated petitions. By 1831, GUPCS supporters had sent 900 petitions to Congress with most containing twenty to fifty signatures.
The GUPCS members chiefly argued that moving and delivering the mail on Sunday violated God’s will and that such sinful behavior threatened the future of the nation. The right of states to regulate their own affairs without federal interference was also raised, because religious issues were left in other respects to the states. Other GUPCS members insisted that the federal government lacked the constitutional power to authorize the violation of the Sabbath. Defenders of Sunday mail repeated the commercial arguments in petitions to Congress. Many merchants, especially those far removed from the major seaports, wrote about delays in receiving the latest information on market fluctuations. They wanted to have an equal advantage with Boston and New York merchants. They argued that government should properly be concerned with worldly goods and not with otherworldly salvation.
Under strong pressure from the public, House and Senate committees formed to study the postal law. While the chairman of the House committee waffled on the subject, the head of the Senate committee swayed Congress to keep the law. General Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, a devout Baptist, wrote in the committee’s 1829 report that congressional action to stop Sunday mail would be unconstitutional. Johnson reminded Americans that they had religious freedom and that government had no right to coerce the religious homage of anyone.
The invention of the telegraph in 1844 ultimately spelled the end of Sunday mail. It was now possible to get market information without using the mails. By the 1850s, postmaster generals were eliminating most Sunday movement of mail.
CARYN E. NEUMANN
References and Further Reading
See also Religion in ‘‘Public Square’’ Debate