Kendall, Amos (1789–1869)

2012-07-20 09:30:59

Amos Kendall was born in Dunstable, Massachusetts, to an old New England family and spent much of his youth working on his father’s farm. Despite minimal primary education, he enrolled at Dartmouth College at age eighteen and, in 1811, graduated at the top of his class. After studying law with William Merchant Richardson in Groton, Massachusetts, Kendall moved to Kentucky, working first as a tutor in the home of Henry Clay and then cultivating an eclectic career that would ultimately encompass the law, journalism, politics, and business. Formerly a Clay Whig, Kendall shifted his political allegiance to Andrew Jackson in 1826 and helped Old Hickory carry Kentucky in the presidential election of 1828. For his part in the Democratic ascendancy, Kendall was chosen to take his adopted state’s electoral votes to Washington, D.C., where he loyally served the Jackson regime for over a decade. Acting as fourth auditor for the treasury and, later, as postmaster-general, Kendall eventually became the most trusted and influential member of Jackson’s famous cadre of advisors, popularly known as the ‘‘Kitchen Cabinet.’’

At the height of Kendall’s influence in the White House, antislavery petitions were being successfully tabled by southern representatives. Stymied in the House, the American Anti-Slavery Society decided to flood the country, and particularly the South, with their tracts and periodicals. On July 29, a steamship carrying bundles of this literature arrived in Charleston Harbor. After discovering and confiscating the ‘‘incendiary’’ cargo, the city’s postmastergeneral, Alfred Huger, promptly wrote to Kendall for advice. Although an angry mob seized and publicly burned the tracts, Kendall’s response to Huger’s letter more or less defined the federal government’s policy toward controversial mailings up to the Civil War. Acknowledging that he had no legal authority to censor the mail, regardless of its contents, Kendall nonetheless concluded that the security of communities, which he assumed abolitionist propaganda threatened, superseded the law. Although the mailings were designed to persuade whites of the evil of slavery rather than to incite slave rebellion, such distinctions failed to impress white southerners, for whom the memory of Nat Turner was all too fresh.

Despite the passage of a federal mail law prohibiting state interference, southerners continued to censor and destroy abolitionist literature, even as its flow ebbed after 1835. In the southern interpretation of the law, federal protection ended at the point of reception; once mail reached its destination, that is, local authorities withheld the right to review and dispense with it as they saw fit. Most northerners shared southerners’ distaste for Abolitionists, and they initially supported Kendall’s policy of federal noninterference. Many in the North, however, eventually came to see sinister implications in the censorship and destruction of literature that southern authorities deemed ‘‘incendiary.’’

The mail controversy ultimately helped to link the abolitionist cause more firmly than ever with civil liberties as they applied to white Americans. The constitutional provisions for freedom of speech and freedom of the press commanded national attention during Kendall’s tenure as postmaster-general, and in the controversy over abolitionist mailings, in particular, he played a prominent, albeit ignoble, role.


References and Further Reading

  • Anderson, Frank Maloy. Amos Kendall. Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. 5, Dumas Malone, ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1933, pp. 325–327.
  • Kendall, Amos. Autobiography of Amos Kendall. William Stickney, ed. Boston: Lee and Shepard, Publishers, 1872.
  • Nye, Russel B. Fettered Freedom: Civil Liberties and the Slavery Controversy, 1830–1860. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State College Press, 1949, pp. 54–69.
  • Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833–1845. Vol. 3. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1984, pp. 258–263.