Postal Dreams Deferred

<a href="" target="_self">Bland Whitley</a> | January 12, 2024

As both the executive of the federal government and the local executive for the District of Columbia, Jefferson faced a steady stream of pardon requests during his time as president. Most of these requests came from the local context and featured lower-income individuals serving time for ordinary crimes such as unlicensed tavern keeping, burglary, and battery. Jefferson’s pardons were typically remissions of fines that, left unpaid, would have forced convicts to languish in prison indefinitely. Atypical, then, was the request that came to him in the spring of 1806 from John N. Simpson and Thomas Ward, two well-placed Republicans in New Jersey (documents associated with the case will appear in our volumes 49 and 50, still under production). Even more than the relative prestige of the defendants, the case draws interest for the recently passed law that the two had violated: they had employed Black mail carriers on the postal route they managed, which connected New York and Philadelphia.

Image of an engraving of an American stage wagon on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, created 1798 by J. Stoner after T. Wold

Engraving of an American stage wagon on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, created 1798 by J. Stoner after T. Wold (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Passage of the law grew out of routine congressional action on the postal service. On 17 March 1802, Senator James Jackson of Georgia presented to Gideon Granger, the Postmaster General, five queries about the postal service, the last of which asked if Granger deemed necessary “any further means, by law, for the safe carrying the mail.” Granger’s answer, sent six days later, focused largely on managing contracts and speeding up service but also included a suggestion “to prohibit contractors from entrusting the mail to negroes, or people of color.” Granger indicated that because Blacks were barred in many states from testifying against Whites, they would become favorite targets for mail robbers. This was the official reason. In a separate answer to Jackson, Granger argued that “an objection exists” to employing Black mail carriers “of a nature too delicate to engraft into a report which may become public.” Alluding to the revolution in Saint-Domingue and to conspiracies uncovered in Virginia and South Carolina, Granger indicated that anything that “tends to increase their knowledge of natural rights, of men and things, or that affords them an opportunity of associating, acquiring, and communicating sentiments, and of establishing a chain or line of intelligence, must increase your hazard.” Post riders would be the “most active and intelligent” and would “become teachers to their brethren” and an “organized corps, circulating our intelligence openly, their own privately.” Now, these seem like odd concerns for a politician from Connecticut. Granger’s predecessors had specifically offered assent to what had been a longstanding practice of allowing slaves to deliver mail. It’s tempting to speculate on who ultimately was the source of Granger’s fears of a Black revolutionary vanguard. There is no indication, however, that Jackson himself communicated any similar fears or had intentionally elicited Granger’s response. Nor is there any evidence that Granger corresponded about the matter with Jefferson, though they could have held a conference on it, both being in Washington at the time. It remains, therefore, an open question why a Connecticut yankee would lecture a Georgia senator on the threat of a slave insurrection.

When passed on 3 May 1802, section 4 of the comprehensive postal law—the kind of legislation setting up and funding routes that passed in almost every year—limited mail carrying to “no other than a free white person.” Postal contractors faced a $50 fine for “every such offence,” half to go to the United States and half to “the person who shall sue for, and prosecute the same, before any court having competent jurisdiction thereof.” This qui tam mechanism allowed ordinary citizens to enforce legislation and was an important facet of the legal regime of the early republic period, incentivizing enforcement without the need to employ civil servants. Less typical, though hardly unique, was the explicitly discriminatory language. Only rarely did federal statutes before the Civil War lift the subtext of racism to the actual text of legislation. Regulations applying to enslaved persons, most famously the three-fifths clause and the fugitive slave acts, avoided racial classifications and even use of the word “slaves” in favor of phrases like “a person held to labour” (a locution that reminds me of the one favored by Jeff Goldblum’s character in a Marvel movie—“prisoners with jobs”—but I digress). Legislation discriminating against all Blacks, however, had to dispense with euphemism. Most notably, statutes regulating naturalization barred any but white immigrants from becoming citizens. In 1792, the law instituting rules for U.S. militia forces made only white males subject to the service but stopped short of explicitly barring free Blacks (because of the Louisiana Purchase, the United States would inherit a militia force comprised of hommes libres de couleur). Laws instituting rules of suffrage in U.S. territories similarly singled out free white men as those eligible to participate. By restricting the postal service to “no other than a free white person,” the 1802 law indicated a fear not so much of slaves carrying the mail but of free Blacks doing so.

Manuscript images of Ward's and Simpson's Petition to Jefferson, 18 and 19 April 1806.

Ward’s and Simpson’s petition to Jefferson, 18 April 1806. The third page contains a statement by New Jersey congressmen Aaron Kitchell and John Condit, 19 Apr. 1806, certifying their support of Ward’s and Simpson’s petition, with Jefferson’s added note (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Thomas Ward and John N. Simpson, our New Jersey petitioners, failed to notice the new regulation and continued to employ “several confidential black men” as stage drivers. Upon learning of their violation, they replaced these drivers with white men. They still feared, however, that malicious actors might inform on them and were proposing a kind of pre-emptive action in which they became “informers against themselves” in exchange for a full pardon from the president. Jefferson demurred from this strategy, arguing that a preemptive pardon was not a legitimate use of his executive authority. The two contractors would have to earn a conviction from a “friendly” prosecution. They, or at least Ward, evidently did so, and after Newark-based congressman John Condit reminded the president of the case and warned of the potential for an expansive interpretation of the law, Jefferson pardoned Ward on 30 July 1806. No mention of Simpson appears in the record of this case after the initial petition. Perhaps the partners agreed that Ward would be the only one to make himself available for the friendly prosecution. Perhaps Ward was the only one whose residence in a larger community and political profile invited a qui tam procedure. In any event, the conviction and pardon did nothing to hurt his standing. Continuing to exercise influence among Newark Republicans, he commanded the cavalry regiment of New Jersey’s militia and was elected as a Republican to the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Congresses. Simpson enjoyed a similar, if less high-flying, career of business and public service. As for the African American drivers, their displacement—almost certainly a sore disappointment to them—showed that in cases where individual effort and personal connections might enable advancement, discriminatory statutes emerged to do the work of white supremacy.

For further reading:

Deanna Boyd and Kendra Chen, “The History and Experience of African Americans in America’s Postal Service,” accessed, 11 Jan. 2024.

American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. Post Office Department (Washington, D.C., 1834), 21-2, 27.

Richard Peters, ed., Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, 8 vols. (Boston, 1855-56), 1:103, 271, 302, 414; 2:153, 189-92, 195-6, 286, 455.

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