Barnabas Bates and the Battle for Cheap Postage: Barnabas Bates vs. Lysander Spooner
In our finale, we assess Bates’ impact and legacy, comparing his slow and steady reform pace with Spooner’s more radical agenda.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
For our final selection from the only biography of Barnabas Bates which has ever been written, we should take some editorial space to reflect upon his life and influence. It is fitting, then, that our author has provided us with a substantial rendition of Bates’ immediate impact upon those important reformers attached to his cause. The selection begins with a short and somewhat terse discussion of the libertarian hero Lysander Spooner. Spooner established his infamous American Letter Mail Company in 1844, many years after Bates had begun campaigning for penny postage and uniform rates. Macbride bristles at Spooner’s self‐proclaimed status as “the Rowland Hill of America,” holding of course that the title properly belongs to Bates. Penny postage accomplished by the mid‐1850s, “Spooner’s attention was then diverted from postal reform to the crusade against slavery, and he became a recluse known for his strong convictions and positives utterances.”
As we suggested in our last item, however, slavery and the mails were never subjects which strayed far from one another. The postal battle was likely conceived of by its combatants as merely one stop along the way toward the peaceful emancipation of slavery. While Bates died before seeing true penny postage with uniform rates, Spooner lived on to see emancipationists and individualists betrayed and the mails censored once again. Our author, of course, would like us to believe that the most important story one could possibly tell about Bates is related to his advocacy for adhesive stamps or lower rates, but I would argue that Bates really shows us the limitations of reformism. Bates battled most of his adult life for the perfectly reasonable, empirically tested, and eminently simple ideas already in use through America’s parent country. And still the government was incredibly slow to respond. The cause of reform may be sensible, rational, and even obvious in their superiority to present conditions, but mere reform of the government usually requires government action. Despite more than two decades of activism, Bates life expired before the government was sufficiently moved to implement his common sense.
Lysander Spooner, by contrast, in some very real sense forced the government to reform. Though private posts competed with the government post office throughout the pre‐reform era, Spooner’s company ruthlessly cut rates with the express purpose of undermining government operations and crowding them out of the business. The government shut him down, certainly, but Spooner’s method possessed one critically important factor Bates’ reformism lacked: Spooner’s was essentially a continuation of the Loco‐Focos’ “War on Monopoly,” while Bates’ propaganda campaign actually helped keep the government post offices both solvent and monopolistic. But American institutions and the voters that love them opted for Bates’ version of activism, in which rates were lowered for the purposes of serving a more important cause. Where Bates likely applied his religious convictions about the role of democratic institutions in promoting a more moral society, Spooner applied rigorous and completist logic. Bates’ motivations for activism were always somewhat emotional and idealistic, whereas Spooner lived his life with a certain fatalism convinced that if any good will come in the world it must come from individuals themselves. Therefore, while Bates seems to have concluded that if we were going to be stuck with a government postal service it might as well service the people and their liberties, Spooner decided early in life that nothing the state does can possibly serve the public and democracy was simply slavery by another name.
By Van Dyk MacBride. Newark (NJ): V.D. MacBride. 1947.
Barnabas Bates, The Rowland Hill of America: A Story of the Fight for Cheap and Uniform Postage in the United States
In attempting to tell the story of Bates and his times perhaps a word might be dropped in here about one Lysander Spooner. Born in Athol, Mass., January 9, 1808, he was to live until May 14, 1887. Born and raised on a farm, he read law in Worcester, Mass. And began the life of a reformer by defying the law which required three years of such study before practice was permitted. In 1835 he published a pamphlet on this subject, which led the Legislature to repeal that law! After a few years in Ohio where he protested some river engineering,–he returned East and established the American Letter Mail Company in New York in 1844, which no only carried letters in New York and Brooklyn, but sent them to Philadelphia, Baltimore and other cities. In defense of this action he wrote and published a pamphlet in 1844, “The Unconstitutionality of Laws Prohibiting Private Mails.” According to “OLD WAY BILLS” by Alvin F. Harlow (New York—1934), Spooner was a bellicose individual who challenged the Postmaster General to stop him, but who was finally put out of business through the competition of the lower rates later adopted by the Government. We also find him interesting because of a pamphlet published anonymously (?) in 1851 in which he was given the credit of forcing the reduction of postage and in which HE was self‐dubbed “the Rowland Hill of America!” Spooner’s attention was then diverted from postal reform to the crusade against slavery, and he became a recluse known for his strong convictions and positive utterance. Another unusual character.—another reformer,–such men were typical of America in those days!
We come now to one of the most attractive and interesting parts of Bates’ campaign,–that of the first printed cacheted “propaganda” envelope ever issued and used in the United States. The British had been using such envelopes to further the cause of various campaigns, and most of them were artistic in appearance and most interesting. Bates doubtless got the idea from the British, as indeed he had derived most of his ideas on postal matters. The designer of this envelope is unknown to the author, as is the exact date of its first usage. But the design is most attractive, it was entered under the 1851 copyright laws, and it is believed the envelopes were first used in 1852. In studying these illustrations note that the wording in the ribbon over the drawing of the old railroad train reads: “WE ASK OF CONGRESS CHEAP INLAND AND OCEAN POSTAGE,” and over the old steamship of the period appears “U.S. MAIL.” From this it will be noted that Bates and hi associates were still striving for their objectives in spite of the lowered postage rates provided under the Act of March 3, 1851, and that their means and methods were being added to instead of lessening. It is also interesting to note that from the illustration of the flap, that this propaganda envelope was copyrighted “by Barnabas Bates, Sec. of N.Y. Cheap Postage Asso.,” and that it was published and sold by “D. Felt & Hosford, Stationers, 50 Wall St. Ny.Y.” Incidentally it appears that the earliest issue of these envelopes had Bates’ name therein spelled “Barnabus,”—which was soon corrected to “Barnabas” in the succeeding issues thereof. The so‐called “Bates Envelopes” are rarities today. Of these the writer has seen or located, one has a manuscript postmark of Flushing, Michigan, with a “PAID 3” representing the postage, one has a 1c stamp of the 1851 issue canceled New York, paying the unsealed circular rate, one has the red New York “FREE” postmark, while the others bear copies of the 3c 1851 stamp canceled New York. One of the latter is illustrated in Dr. Chase’s book on the 3c 1851–1857 stamps on page 354, and therein is described as having a seal on the back flap bearing stenographic characters which read “Time and Tide Wait For No Man.” Perhaps we cannot, however, also ascribe this to Bates’ ideas, energies and propaganda! Other propaganda envelopes were issued later by other persons in support of other campaigns and matters,–and “Ocean Penny Postage” pictorial envelopes were in use in both this country and Great Britain in the 1850’s,–but the “Bates Envelope” was the first, just as Bates himself was the first in the fight for “Cheap Inland and Ocean Postage” in the United States.
In the work originated and led by Barnabas Bates and aided and abetted by Joshua Leavitt, there now appears a third character,–one Pliny Miles. Although there had been many others who aided them, and others who would carry on in the future, it was this trio,–Bates, Leavitt and Miles, who were the “Three Musketeers” of the campaign for cheap postage in this country! This too, seems to be about the order of their respective contributions to the cause, with Bates the leader and captain, Leavitt the loyal and industrious follower and lieutenant, whiles Miles who enlisted late joined Leavitt in carrying on after Bates was gone. Pliny Miles was born in Watertown, N.Y., on November 16, 1818 and raised on a farm. He studied law, and became a lecturer and traveler, having spent some time in Europe. He was a factual and prolific writer, and in addition to the voluminous material he wrote for newspapers and magazines he wrote book on such divers subjects as “Sentiments of Flowers,” “Ocean Steam Navigation,” “Statistical Register” (1848), “Elements of Mermolichry, or Art of Memory” (1848), and “Northurfari, or Rambles in Iceland” (1854)! Another man of wide interests and experiences,–still another “reformer,” he fitted perfectly into the triology of which Bates and Leavitt were the other parts! It was apparently in the 1850’s that he became interested in postal reform, and,–like Leavitt,–became a prolific writer on the subject, producing articles very similar to those written by the others which appeared in the periodicals of the day. In 185 he wrote a book on the subject: “Postal Reform, Its Urgent Necessity and Practicability,” which was published by Stringer & Townsend of 222 Broadway, New York. The Preface includes the following: “We have one of the most imperfect postal systems in the world…We have had an organized government for more than 65 years…we have had the example before us of the various postal systems of Europe, and yet…there has been no improvement of any note or magnitude since the year 1789…In colonial times when Franklin was Postmaster General letters had to be taken to one central locality to be mailed. The same is true today…There was no method of remitting money by mail…exactly the same in this year of grace, 1855…Millions are annually paid out under the name of ‘franking’…the English postal system is the best in the world…the enormous results of cheap postage in England…correspondence increased five fold,–in the U.S. 2 ½ fold…A uniform 2c rate will completely support our post establishment.” Miles evidently corresponded with Roland Hill, for he also acknowledges his “special obligations” to Mr. Rowland Hill, the distinguished Secretary of the English Post Office Department, for numerous favors.” The chapter titles of this book will disclose its tenor sufficiently,–the notes under each being those of the present writer.
Chapter 1—The Franking Privilege
Urges that appropriations be made so that burden does not fall exclusively on the Post Office Department. Suggests Government envelopes with names of officials printed thereon, to be sent free but postage charged to each Department according to use.
Chapter 2—Uniformity of Postage
Defines Rowland Hill’s theories which resulted in British postal uniform rates and local delivery of letters. Objects to the 1854 six cents rate to Pacific Coast,–calls it an unjust tax,–urges a uniform rate for U.S., whether 2c or 3c. Objects to private companies collecting and delivering city mail.
Chapter 3—Letter Carriers and Receiving Houses
Further objects to private companies.
Chapter 4—Post Office Money Orders
Describes and illustrates British system and forms.
Chapter 5—Management of Dead Letters
Describes and illustrates British system.
Chapter 6—Compulsory Prepayment of Postage
Present law requires prepayment after Jan. 1, 1856 postage must be prepaid by stamps or letters destroyed. Doubts its wisdom and urges double postage on unpaid letters instead.
Chapter 7—Way-Bills, Late Letters, Postage Stamps, Etc.
Describes English system,–and speaks of English perforating of stamps as an invaluable improvement.
Chapter 8—Post Offices in New York, Ocean Postage, Etc. Conclusion.
Criticizes our Post Office buildings, urges branches, urges better and cheaper ocean postal service,–summarizes.
We find magazine articles by Miles in many periodicals,–one of his earliest appearing in Harper’s Magazine of January 1856, while among his last were one in Hunts Merchants Magazine of May 1862, “Advantages of Uniform Postage,” and one in the June 1862 issue, “Economic Advantages of Uniform Postage.” He wrote many more articles for Hunts Merchants Magazine, and for the Bankers Magazine in the 1850’s and 1860’s, and his Report to Congress appears as Senate Document 156 of the 26th Congress. Miles survived Bates but not Leavitt, dying on April 7, 1865 on the island of Malta, on his way to report the opening of the Suez Canal for a New York newspaper. During his work we find Miles interested in the “New York Postal Reform Association,”—possibly a successor to Bates’ New York Cheap Postage Association, which held a public meeting in New York on March 24, 1856. The Committee in charge consisted of fifteen prominent citizens of the time including Peter Cooper, with Thomas Tileston as Chairman, Luther Bradish as President, and Pliny Miles as a member. At this meeting resolutions were adopted pleading for a uniform letter rate of 2c, the collection and delivery of letters without additional charge, the provision of Money Oders up to $25, compulsory prepayment of postage to be abolished but double postage to be charged on all mail not prepaid, Dead Letters to be returned to the writers without opening whenever possible, and postage on all franked matter to be paid for by the Government. Reference to the chapter headings of Miles’ book quoted earlier herein, will disclose the source of practically all of these pleas. Later in his campaign for cheap postage, Miles was to urge the reduction of the letter postage rate to 1c per ½ ounce regardless of distance,–a lower rate than any of the other postal reformers ever envisaged, and one which was never to be achieved in this country.
Still others were to join those who led in the long fight for postal reform and the last one in any way identified with this period and that which immediately succeeded it appears to have been on John Hill, who was a Congressman from New Jersey in the 1870’s. Although bearing a name identified with postal affairs,–for there was a John Hill who wrote on the subject of a Penny Post in London as early as 1659 (!), and a Pearson Hill who wrote a book, “The Origin of Postage Stamps,” in London in 1890,–neither he nor Rowland Hill seem to have been related to any of these other Hills, or to each other! This John Hill, described in one article this writer has seen as “the father of cheap postage in the United States,” did lead in the fight which resulted in the first 2c uniform postage adopted in 1883. Although he may also have been one of the many interested in the earlier efforts to achieve postal reform, it appear obvious that his services to the cause were rendered along after Barnabas Bates initiated the idea and commenced the work which entitled him to be recognized as long ago as 1847 as the true “Rowland Hill of America!”
In the issue of the New York Daily Tribune of Wednesday, October 12, 1853, in a column headed “The Latest News Received by Magnetic Telegraph” appeared this item:
Boston, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 1853
Barnabas Bates formerly Assistant Postmaster of New York, and the advocate of cheap postage, died here this morning.
An editorial in the same paper reads:
The telegraph announces the death of Barnabas Bates, the well known advocate of the Cheap Postage System. His indefatigable zeal in this cause has contributed to no small degree, to the improvements which have been already achieved in the United States Post Office. The fact of Mr. Bates was familiar to a large portion of our citizens, and he will be lamented as an active, public‐spirited man. He died in Boston, at the house of a relative, after an illness of several weeks.
Barnabas Bates was therefore 66 years, 8 months, and 9 days old on the day of his death. He had lived a full, busy, and useful life, and the campaign for cheap postage and postal reform which he initiated and led, forms a most fitting memorial for him. Much for which he strove he accomplished. He lived to see the basis for letter postage changed to weight, and the reduction of the rates to 5c and 10c in 1847, and then to 3c and 6c in 1851. Best of all, he lived to see our first adhesive postage stamps authorized and issued in 1847, largely as a result of his own unremitting efforts to get the British system adopted in the United States. He was not however, to see the prepayment of postage required or the registry of letters provided for, (1856), the free delivery of letters by carrier (1863), the introduction of money orders (1864), the agreement on low and uniform rates of ocean postage (1875), nor was he,–or anyone else,–to see the final abolishing of the franking privilege. And, he was never to see his chief objective,–a single and uniform rate of postage attained. For it was not until 1863 that the 3c rate for a half ounce letter to any point in the United States became a reality, and not until 1883 that the rate was reduced to 2c. It was not until then that for the first time “the free citizens of this republic” were to enjoy the privilege of as cheap postage as the subjects of Queen Victoria!”
This is not the complete story of Barnabas Bates,–it is, the writer believes, probably the first effort to award him the place in postal history he so richly deserves. Doubtless many questions would be answered if we could locate later volumes of his diary, but there would still remain much to be learned of him and of his times and work. The present writer hopes that either he may find the time to do the necessary research or that other students will do it so that we may fill in the now existing gaps in the story. For instance, we should know how it was and in what Bates lived while he was devoting all of his time to his campaign, and as to what happened to his family, his estate if any, and to his descendants. Did Bates ever have any direct contacts with Rowland Hill? What were his arrangements with Joshua Leavitt, and what were his contacts with Pliny Miles, Lysander Spooner, John Hill, and other postal reformers of his day? What happened to the New York, and the Boston, Cheap Postage Associations after Bates’ death, and what was the story of the New York Postal Reform Association of which Pliny Miles was an organizer in 1856? Why were no more magazine articles written by Bates or Leavitt after about 1851, and until Miles began writing them about 1856? And, perhaps most important of all, what was the complete story of the postal reform movement in Congress, of the introduction of Webster’s and other resolutions in the 1840’s and 1850’s, and of the U.S. Postal Commission appointed in 1844 through to the adoption of our first cheap postage law, the Act of March 3, 1845? All this should be searched out and written up if we are to have the full story of the adoption of cheap and uniform postage to add to the postal history of our country.