Barnabas Bates and the Battle for Cheap Postage: “The Rowland Hill of America”
Philatelic historian Van Dyk Macbride wrote the only significant biography of one of libertarianism’s unknown heroes.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
The so‐called “Jacksonian” Era in America presents historians with a dizzying array of busy and idealistic reformers spending the bulk of their lives sculpting society in more pleasing directions. These vast hordes of do‐gooders utilized their positions within the burgeoning middle and leisured classes to establish hundreds (and probably thousands, all told) of associative societies and propaganda outlets. Jacksonian reformers ran the social gauntlet from “Moral Reform” societies aiming to abolish prostitution to “Cheap Postage” associations lobbying for adhesive stamps and low, uniform rates. Many of these organizations were positively antagonistic to individual liberty, essentially using the tools of a free society to petition the government for restrictions on social freedoms. A wide variety of historians over the last century, however, have interpreted this apparent inconsistency to mean that even they who hoped to curtail social liberties were individualists and democrats in their methods. Thus, the historian cleanly sweeps Jacksonians into a single great trend toward twentieth century progressivism and social democracy. The “Consensus” historians’ desire to wash away what were in fact serious distinctions in social values and reform methods among Americans has had the main effect of erasing libertarianism in our historical memory. As we hear that pretty much all Americans have always believed in constitutional, limited government, we steadily forget the more fundamental disagreements over the principles of political economy. As we learn (and it’s true!) that virtually all 19th century Americans believed in the Lockean and Smithian visions of politics and economics, we neglect to recall that powerful individuals with vested interests in the status quo prevented the fulfilment of liberalism in the United States. Decade after decade in the twentieth century, historians failed to seriously question whether America’s truly radical liberals ever seriously impacted the great bulk of moderate liberal reformers. Historians have placed the moderates–who most resemble the modern day academic–in command of American life, failing to recognize the importance of radicals. It is, in the end, the tireless, thankless, and most passionate people who pull the great mass further in their own directions.
Our current series, therefore, presents the biography of one such tireless and unthanked reformer, Barnabas Bates. Our author, a stamp‐collector and amateur philatelic historian from the early twentieth century named Van Dyk MacBride, calls Bates “The Rowland Hill of America,” referring to the British postal reformer who pioneered many of the methods and ideas which modernized postal systems throughout the 19th century. To my knowledge, this is the only significant attempt to produce a life of Bates in existence, and it was only ever published in pamphlet form for an extremely small and specialized audience. We will be publishing it in full in an attempt to revive Barnabas Bates’ life, reputation, and impact as an important reformer. While libertarians are well aware of Lysander Spooner’s activism as a postal pirate, practically no one is aware that Barnabas Bates was the diligent reformer behind the scenes. While Spooner’s American Letter Mail Company certainly wins the contest of theatrics, Bates spent his life preparing the ideological edifice for Spooner’s activism. We will have a great deal more to say about all of these subjects, but for now our author surveys the origins of the project and Bates’ early life.
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
This is the story of the fight for cheap and uniform postage in American in the 1840s and 1850s. It is chiefly the story of Barnabas Bates, Esq., who organized and led that fight, and who was even then called “The Rowland Hill of America,” but who since has nearly been forgotten. But, it is also the story of other stalwart fighters in the same cause, and the reader will find the efforts of such men as Joshua Leavitt, Pliny Miles, Lysander Spooner and John Hill and also Daniel Webster told of here, among others. And, it is an account of the early postal history of the United States, and of the conditions and events which finally gave us our first cheap postage rates and our first postage stamps. The year of 1947 is the Centennial Year, and it therefore seems most appropriate to review all this now, to accord to Barnabas Bates the credit for his accomplishments, and to again recognize him as the real “Rowland Hill of America!”
Van Dyk MacBride
One of the great stories of Philatelic History appears never to have been told. It is the story of Barnabas Bates, Esquire,–“The Rowland Hill of America.” And certainly no more appropriate time could be found for its telling than now, in the year 1947, when Philately is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first stamps issued by the United States government. Those two stamps, the 5c and 10c stamps issued in July of 1847, were the visible evidences of the success of the long and arduous labors of this unsung hero. Credit for the postal reform which produced them largely belongs to Barnabas Bates who devoted about twenty years of his life to selling the idea of a cheap and uniform rate of postage prepaid by adhesive stamps, to a reluctant government, an antagonistic Congress, and an unimpressed people. Apparently several persons have been described before as “The Rowland Hill of America” because of their labors in the cause of cheap postage in this country. Some of them may have preceded Bates, some of them assisted him, and some followed him,–but so far as can be determined from the records, he was the first man in America to actively espouse the cause and with the ardor of the true zealot he saw it through to success. Surely his story deserves the first place in the postal and philatelic history of America!
The present writer first had his attention drawn to Barnabas Bates by means of a remarkable document which turned up in the hands of a well known dealer in rare books, manuscripts, and other early Americana. Because of the writer’s interest in anything bearing upon early American postal history it was sent on to him for inspection and it became the basis for the study of which this article is the result. In the form of an old‐fashioned paper notebook entirely filled with well and clearly written entries in pen‐and‐ink, it turned out to be the original Diary of Barnabas Bates! In size it is 6 ½ by 8 inches, and it contains 68 leaves written on each side,–a total of 136 pages of his own early history. Pasted in the front of this diary is a story clipped from a newspaper of the period,–the New York Atlas of April 18, 1847, entitled “Portraits of the People,” and entitled “Barnabas Bates, Esq.—The Advocate of Cheap Postage.” Obviously cut out and pasted in by himself, it bears the notation of the newspaper and date in his own handwriting and we may therefore assume that as Bates selected it as the “frontispiece” of his own diary that he approved of what it said of him. It apparently was one of a series of articles of well known persons of the period as it is numbered “No. 258,” and best of all it was headed by a fine clear wood‐cut of Bates himself. This portrait, and its accompanying story has been photographed just as it is pasted in the front of the diary, and it now forms the frontispiece of this article. They very first paragraph of this newspaper story of one hundred years ago, assigns to Mr. Bates the title of “The Rowland Hill of America,” and credits him “for his unwearied and successful exertions in carrying through the great and benevolent measure of cheap postage,” and the final paragraph says that “Although much has been done by Mr. Bates in reducing the rates of postage, he is still laboring for a greater reduction and will never be satisfied until the free citizens of this republic enjoy the privilege of as cheap postage as the subjects of Queen Victoria. He contends for a much lower and uniform rate of postage—the entire abolition of the franking privilege—prepayment of everything sent by the mails—and the delivery of all mail letters in large cities and towns to their address, without any additional expense.” The present writer suggests that the entire story accompanying the portrait be read.
We now turn to the original diary itself. The first thing to be noted is a disagreement about the date and even the place of his birth. Every biographical work consulted by this writer gives the date as 1785 and the place as Edmonton, England. Yet Bates, in his own diary begins the second paragraph thereof with: “According to the information given me I was born in the year 1787 on the 2nd day of February in the town of Manchester, England…!” So that our readers can see just how the Bates diary actually appears, a part of the first page,–including the sentence just quoted,–is illustrated in this article (see Figure No. 1). Begun on June 13, 1846, this diary was commenced by Bates when he was in his 60th year, and it apparently is or was intended to be the first volume of a series in which he planned to tell the whole story of his life. Unfortunately this first volume is the only one in existence, so far as this writer knows. There well may be others and if anyone knows of them he will render a service to the study of our postal history by reporting them promptly to the author of this article so that they may be examined and their contents added to our present store of knowledge. In the one volume we have, Bates tells the story of his early years. His experiences give us not only a picture of an unusual man but they vividly reflect the times he lived in. His father was an educated man who once studied to become a Catholic priest but who entered business in London where he did not prosper. Bates’ mother died when he was but 11 years old, and although he had some schooling he was chiefly educated by his father. His father’s second marriage was to a devout Presbyterian who made little Barnabas read the Bible constantly, and who was so strict in all her ways as to finally cause him to run away from home. At the age of 13 and without a shilling to his name, he first got a job on a small coastwise ship in the coal trade, and then he shipped on the American brig “Phoenix” bound for Boston. There he arrived after a 35 day trip, in May of 1801, and the ship’s carpenter got him a job learning his trade. He spent the next five years, however, with a ship’s rigger, one Nathaniel French, and although he says that as a boy he was “thoughtless about religion,” he attended the Second Baptist Church regularly and sung in its choir. He became more and more interested in the church as time went on, and soon was leading religious meetings in various parts of Boston. Bates studied continuously and on February 2, 1806, when he was 19 years old, he preached his first regular sermon. Continuing preaching and also studying at Phillips Academy at Exeter where Edward Everett the famous orator, educator and statesman was a classmate, he met a representative of the Warren Association of Salem who had been authorized to engage a minister for the Baptist church at Barnstable, on Cape Cod. After much persuasion Bates agreed to consider the position, and after preaching there on November 15, 1807 he was called and accepted that ministry in February, 1808, and was then finally ordained as a Baptist minister. Bates described himself at the time as “young, ardent, ignorant and positive,”—but his forceful manner of preaching was evidently much liked!
The diary then becomes largely a record of his ministry, and it faithfully lists the number of sermons he preached and the number of persons he baptized in each year. He married Abigail Hallett of Barnstable on August 8, 1809, he was responsible for a large addition to his church, and he traveled and preached in Boston, Providence and other New England places, as well as at Dartmouth College. A daughter was born on August 10, 1810, and a second daughter was born the following year in the new house he had just completed in Barnstable. That year he visited New York for the first time, sailing there on a sloop and taking a week for the journey. The War of 1812 intervened, and the Reverend Bates was kept busy with preaching and with “leading his community in various patriotic ways.” One of his contacts with the War is told of in the newspaper article which is set forth in full earlier herein. In May of 1814 he left Barnstable to become the minister of the Baptist Church at Bristol, RI, and in July he again visited New York where he preached in the Baptist churches there. That city was in a turmoil of military affairs, and in helping to arrange for its defense from an anticipated British attack, Bates met Mayor DeWitt Clinton, and others of the great figures of the day. He went to Philadelphia, but was prevented from visiting Baltimore and Washington by the bombardment of the former, and the invasion of the latter city. On his way home to Bristol, he visited Brown University at Providence, RI where the degree of Master of Arts was conferred on him. Two more daughters were born to the Bates,–one in March 1813 and one in December 1814.
The War of 1812 ended early in 1815, and Bates’ description of the receipt of the good news is found in the following entry in the Diary:
On the 22nd of February being Washington’s Birthday, I was requested by the citizens to deliver an address in the Congregational Meeting House. While we were assembled for this purpose and about the middle of my discourse Charles Collins then collector of the customs came into the Meeting House after the arrival of the mail and handed to me in the pulpit the treaty of peace which had been ratified by Great Britain. The scene on that occasion can be better conceived than decribed. I stopped in the delivery of my discourse and read the article of peace and then resumed and finished my discourse. That evening a procession of the citizens marched thro’ the streets, accompanied with a band of music and all the houses were illuminated to testify that their joy on the occasion although it was a cold night and the ground covered with snow, but the streets were filled with old and young of both sexes. Old men that had no danced for 50 years, did on this memorable night ‘trip the light fantastic toe.’
During that year Bates became uneasy about his situation in Bristol, as he found his salary of $600 insufficient to care for his large family. The citizens then got him appointed Postmaster, and the added income from that office proved sufficient for his support. To qualify he became a citizen,–having previously overlooked that formality,–and he was naturalized on June 10, 1816. In April 1817, he finally received the appointment, and it is here we find Barnabas Bates’ first contact with the postal system of our country,–a contact which was to largely dominate the later years of his life. It was also about this time that the Diary indicates that Bates’ religious life, or at least his beliefs, began to change for we find that doubts arose in his mind as to some parts of the Baptist creed. He refused an invitation to become the minister of the Baptist church on Vandam Street in New York City at $1,000 per year, and continued on at Bristol. But by 1818 his drift away from orthodoxy became observed, and one faction of his congregation called upon him to resign. A general row ensued, and by August 1819 he was excluded from his Bristol church. However, he continued to take an active part in all of the quarrels, which finally led to the institution of a law‐suit against him for trespass in keeping possession of his church, and depositions in the matter were called for to be taken in Providence, Rhode Island. The man’s character is well revealed in all this,–an inquiring questioning mind seeking self‐expression as a result of his studies and beliefs, and resenting the close confines of rules and customs; always ready to fight for what he decided was right; somewhat bellicose and belligerent,–this was the man who was later to lead the long and arduous struggle for “postal reform,” for “cheap postage,” for “uniform rates” and for “prepayment of postage” by means of adhesive stamps!
The Bates’ Diary,–or at least the only volume of it this writer has seen,–ends here. He wrote right up to the last page of the little blank book, detailing all of his quarrels with his church and its people, and therefore it is plainly evident that he did not stop there. He must have gone right ahead with a second volume of the Diary, and if we could find it–and others which perhaps exist,–we would doubtless find therein his own story of the fight for postal reform. We do know from other sources that Bates became a Unitarian in his religious beliefs and that later he formally adopted the faith. He remained Post‐master of Bristol until 1820, and then was appointed Collector of Customs for the Bristol‐Warren district of Rhode Island. When his first term expired he was renominated but was defeated as a result of the antagonism he had aroused not only because of his religious quarrels, but because of his strong abolitionist views and his zealous free‐masonry. He had become chaplain of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Rhode Island, and also was a director of one, and later the President of another, Bristol bank. His constant agitation for the causes he believed in and was identified with finally brought on a riot during which his life was actually in danger and some of his property was damaged and destroyed. He then resigned all his posts and left Bristol for New York in 1824. There he first opened a book store and in the following year he started a weekly religious publication with the somewhat significant name of The Christian Inquirer, which was “devoted to the support of Free Inquiry, Religious Liberty and Rational Christianity!” This venture did not succeed commercially and in 1828 Bates turned it over to others and announced his retirement from the ministry. In 1829 he became connected with a non‐secular paper, the Evening Journal one of the earliest American advocates of bettering the lot of the working man,–that which we would call a “Labor” paper today. It is also in 1829 that we find another evidence of Bates’ developing interest in postal affairs, for the record shows that he addressed a general meeting of the citizens of New York in Tammany Hall on December 28th of that year, according to the Gospel Herald (New York 1830) “to express sentiments on memorials to Congress to prevent transporting mail and opening Post Offices on Sunday.”
Largely because of a difference with the political outlook of his associates in the Evening Journal he parted from them and in 1832 he established another and more important connection with the post office and postal affairs. This consisted of an appointment by the Postmaster General Wm. T. Barry of the Andrew Jackson administration as a special agent to examine and report on the post offices in New York and the New England states. In the succeeding year of 1833, Bates was made assistant postmaster of New York City, which post he held until 1836. Incidentally, it was the Andrew Jackson–“to the victor belongs the spoils,” Administration which was the first to exploit the political values of the Post Office Department, and Barry was the first Postmaster General to become a Cabinet member. From Barry down hundreds of appointments were made to pay political debts, and experienced men who had served during the previous administrations, from Washington to John Quincy Adams, were thrown out to make way for the new “spoils system.” The services of the Post Office Department promptly went from only fair to very bad, and Bates himself received his New York post office appointment in this period. He thus became thoroughly familiar with the postal customs, methods, and habits of the day, and we can safely reach the conclusion that he knew what he was talking about when he began his fight for the reform of the postal system as it then existed.
At this point in the story of Barnabas Bates let us stop momentarily and study the character of this interesting man as it has been developed thus far. Bates had had remarkably broad training and experience in the life of America of that period, when our country itself was developing and growing out of its infant years. Colonial and Revolutionary days were over, and these were the years when the original thirteen states were adding others and together were slowly but surely welding themselves into a nation. These were the days when the church and more particularly the preacher provided much of the leadership. It was to the pulpits were most of the great orators, and when they fulminated on the leading questions the people listened, followed, and acted. Ministers and ex‐ministers headed the colleges, filled Congress, political offices and the diplomatic service, headed some of the largest business enterprises, published and edited many of the leading newspapers,–and were generally the “big men” of the day. This then was the background from which Bates emerged. From the record of his boyhood we can deduce that he was strong‐willed and determined, from his young‐manhood we observe his religious learnings, from his more mature years we note his unwillingness to fall into a pre‐arranged mold. From it all it becomes clear that he was somewhat unstable and erratic although persistent, stubborn, and capable of real leadership. After a considerable period as a minister he became a leader in a fraternal organization, he held political office, he became a banker, a newspaper man, and he even was a storekeeper for a while. But no description fits Bates so well as that of a “reformer,”–a fighter for what he believed the public wanted or should have, and regardless of whether or not he would personally gain thereby. The postal service of the day was to provide him with a fruitful field!