The Sunday Mail Debate by Ken Lynn (October 1997)

The recent Teamsters’ strike of the United Parcel Service and the temporary return to Sunday mail delivery by the U.S. Postal Service calls attention to an important, often overlooked period in our country’s history. A great debate raged between 1810-1830 over whether U.S. mail should be transported on Sunday and whether post offices should remain open seven days a week. Many Americans then, as now, mistakenly called upon the “Christian” national government to invoke God’s fourth commandment and enforce respect of the Sabbath as a day of rest, prayer and church attendance, by suspending postal activity on Sundays. At the conclusion of this acrimonious debate, the principles of the secular Constitution prevailed and our young national government reaffirmed its commitment to the Lockean principles of life, liberty and property–not the saving of souls. The discussion over Sunday mail began in Washington, Pennsylvania, in 1809. The town postmaster, Hugh Wylie, followed the commonly practiced, though unofficial, custom of sorting the mail and opening his post office on Sundays so that churchgoers from nearby villages could pick up their mail after church services. Wylie, an elder in the local Presbyterian church, was expelled from the church for this outlandish violation of the Sabbath. U.S. Postmaster General Gideon Granger responded in 1810 by having Congress pass federal legislation governing all 2,300 post offices, declaring that U.S. mail would be moved seven days per week, and all post offices that received mail had to be opened at least one hour each day. Petitions immediately began arriving in Congress from religious groups asking for the law to be repealed. By 1815, more than one hundred petitions had been received urging repeal. Sounding remarkably similar to the Christian right of today, one petition summed up opposition to Sunday mail as follows: “our government is a Christian government, a government formed and established by Christians and therefore, bound by the word of God, not at liberty to contravene His law, nor act irrespectively of the obligations we owe to Him.” Postmaster General Granger and his successor, Return J. Meigs, were more concerned with the transportation of the mail on Sunday than whether the post offices remained open. Religious petitioners refused to separate the two issues. The arguments of the postal officials were pragmatic. To suspend Sunday mail movement, they argued, would create unprecedented scheduling and coordination problems. The disruption to the economy would be far-reaching and incalculable. Merchants and public officials needing to keep abreast of vital events affecting markets and national security issues relied on the rapid transmission of information that was provided only by mail. And finally, Postmaster General Meigs warned that postal rates would dramatically increase if Sunday mail service was suspended. Mail contractors primarily operated stagecoaches that also carried passengers. If the coaches were not allowed to run on Sundays, the passengers would seek alternative modes of transportation, thus raising postal rates. The bill to repeal the law of 1810 quietly died in Congress, never even being brought to a vote. In 1828, the General Union for the Promotion of the Christian Sabbath (GUPCS) was formed in new York City. This organization launched a new and much broader Congressional petition campaign to repeal the 1810 Postal Act. Members of GUPCS had to pledge to boycott all businesses that operated on Sunday. After a call for petitions went out, 467 petitions arrived in Congress by 1829 (and more than 900 by May 1831). Many petitions again mistakenly claimed America was founded as a Christian nation. Defenders of Sunday mail called attention to the secular Constitution as the blueprint for the federal government. Some called the campaign of the General Union “the first step of a Christian party plan to seize control of the national government.” In 1830, three states filed petitions with Congress opposing repeal of the 1810 law. One of the three state petitioners, Indiana, strongly endorsed the secular ideals of the United States Constitution and concluded its petition with words as meaningful today as in 1830: “There are no doctrines or observances inculcated by the Christian religion which require the arm of civil power either to enforce or sustain them; we consider every connection between church and state at all times dangerous to civil and religious liberty.” Congress eventually found itself swayed against repeal by the Chair of the Senate Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads, General Richard M. Johnson, an Indian fighter and national hero of the War of 1812 who also happened to be a devout Baptist. In January 1829, Johnson (assisted by his close friend Obadiah Brown, minister of Washington’s First Baptist Church) produced the Senate’s Report on the Subject of Mails on the Sabbath, which detailed a total and absolute rebuke of all efforts to repeal the 1810 law, and provided a ringing endorsement of the secular Constitution and the strict separation of church and state! A landmark document, Johnson’s report stands as yet another testament that our national government was not founded as a Christian nation. The report was structured around Johnson’s conviction that Congressional action to stop Sunday mail was absolutely unconstitutional, as it would establish “the principle that the legislature was a proper tribunal to determine what are the laws of God.” The report went on to state: “The framers of the Constitution recognized the eternal principle that man’s relation with God is above human legislation and his rights of conscience unalienable.” Embracing the ideals of The Enlightenment, the authors wrote: “The advance of the human race in intelligence, in virtue and religion itself, depends, in part, upon the speed with which the knowledge of the past is disseminated. . . . the mail is the chief means by which intellectual light irradiates to the extremes of the republic. Stop it one day in seven, and you retard one seventh the improvement of our country.” General Johnson fared very well politically following his stalwart endorsement of the secular Constitution, transforming his image to statesman. In 1836, he was elected Vice President of the United States, serving with Martin Van Buren. Sunday mail, however, did not fare as well. The rapid expansion of the railroad and then the telegraph changed forever the commercial business climate of the country. As a result, seven-day mail service lost its pragmatic rationale for providing up-to-date market information. By the 1850s, postmaster generals were eliminating Sunday movement of the mail. Following the Civil War, the practice ceased completely. Likewise, post offices were gradually closed on Sundays. In 1912, a coalition of ministers and postal clerks finally convinced Congress to close all post offices on Sunday. The story of the “Sunday mail” is noteworthy because it demonstrates that even fifty years after the founding of our nation a powerful national consensus existed over the absolutely secular nature of our Constitution and our federal government. As those of the Christian right have so mistakenly advanced, the United States was not founded as a Christian nation which was then eroded by secularist and liberals; in fact, just the opposite is true. Our great nation was founded by the adoption of an utterly secular Constitution and the nation has endured erosion as “God” first appeared on U.S. currency in 1863, entered the postal service in 1912, the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and potentially could enter the Constitution itself if the so-called “Religious Freedom Amendment” currently being debated in Congress were ratified. Ken Lynn, an active duty Air Force officer currently stationed in California, obtained much of the material used in this article from The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (New York, NY, 1996) by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore. Lynn and his wife Monica are Foundation members.

Freedom From Religion Foundation