Barnabas Bates and the Battle for Cheap Postage: The Loco‐Foco and Daniel Webster
Despite Bates’s lifetime of activism for postal reform, the government was extremely slow to change. And when it finally did, Daniel Webster stole all the credit.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In 1836, the New York Equal Rights (or “Loco‐Foco”) Party stood prostrate with division. Established mere months ago in late 1835, the party was born out of turmoil and internecine hatred within Tammany Hall’s Democracy. The radicals demanded that their party continue Jackson’s “Bank War” at the state level, steadily eliminating the host of medieval corporate privileges infecting American life. With the Second Bank of the United States dead and gone, the radicals declared war on all monopoly and moved on the state banks next. With the state banks dissolved–they hoped–limited liability would fall, and with it, the remaining legal dominoes establishing a veritable class of privileged aristocrats empowered to exploit the masses. But the locos faced the same sorts of problems in their political organization that any ideologically‐motivated political force encounters, namely the almost endless division of factions into the more “pure” and the more “practical.”
These very divisive elements, as it happened, killed the movement in the end (see my overview of the Loco‐Foco movement in two parts, here and here), but they were evident and problematic from the very beginning. After being cast out of Tammany Hall, the radicals established their own organization which ran their own candidates. They were divided, however, over their ultimate mission–was it a token show of strength to gain position and influence with Tammany, or was it an attempt to force the Democracy more broadly to accept radical positions? In the fall of 1835, meeting attendees split over how to handle Tammany’s slight to the radical wing. The pragmatic faction successfully forged a compromise to formally separate if and only if a majority of “monopoly” candidates won during the December elections for Tammany officers. The elections came, the “monopolists” won resoundingly, and separation seemed imminent. At a meeting on 11 January, 1836 the membership resolved “That is has become the duty of the Democratic party opposed to Monopolies, to organize themselves, the better to disseminate and maintain their principles.” In doing so, however, the incipient party threatened to divide those loyal to Jackson and Van Buren’s Democracy from those whose hatred for Tammany outweighed all else. Nine days later, another meeting resolved
That we no longer recognize Tammany Hall as a temple of true democracy; nor the Tammany Society as a democratic body; that the said society exercises a political as well as a proprietary control, so that only such candidates, such politics, and such usages as the sachems approve can be permitted there. That we renounce all connection with the General or other Committees which may assemble there, and that henceforth we will not be the dupes of usages over which the people have no real control, but which interfere with the full exercise of the elective franchise, and defraud the citizen, in the selection of candidates, of an essential portion of his constitutional rights.
William Leggett and Barnabas Bates, among others, opposed the resolution. Bates was an early and vigorous advocate of Locofocoism–a generalized “war on monopoly”–but he was not present at the 20 January meeting. Bates refused to participate in any organization that seemed content to lie with Tammany and had abandoned meetings after the initial vote to postpone separate organization. For Barnabas Bates, anti‐monopoly was much more than a mere political party–it was his way of life and his individual mission. As contemporary Fitzwilliam Byrdsall wrote, “His absence was very properly felt, for no man labored more in the anti‐monopoly movement than he did…He was a pioneer in reform, for he assisted to build up the Workingman’s party of 1828. Doubtless he had proper reasons for his course now, as it is fair to believe that he is a man who always acts from a delicate, as well as profound sense of propriety.” Thus ended Bates’ affair with the Equal Rights Party, but his war on expensive postage waged ceaselessly on. We will return to the other related reform causes dotting Bates’s history, but for now we return to “The Rowland Hill of America.”
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
Our American postal system, like so much else in the early life of our nation, was largely modeled upon that of Great Britain. The postage rates there had steadily increased through the 1700’s and continued their upward trend during the first part of the 1800’s. So expensive did it become to use the mails that letters were smuggled all over Great Britain and schemes to defraud the government of its heavy imposts were common. The poor simply could not afford to use the mails and the custom of sending most letters collect, with the recipient to pay the high charges, resulted in the non‐delivery of much of the mail and led to what was practically the failure of the entire system. It was these conditions which produced Rowland Hill, the father of England’s penny postage, the man to whom must be credited the first uniform and cheap postage, and the use of the adhesive postage stamp itself.
Hill, like Bates was a typical reformer,–the type of man who was always working on some scheme to reform something, and in accordance with the custom of the time he wrote and published a pamphlet on the subject in 1837. His argument was that the greatly increased income obtainable from a large volume of mail sent at uniform rates of cheap postage, would soon more than balance the apparent loss of income from higher rates, and it excited much attention. Parliament investigated and after much argument pro and con an Act was adopted and on August 17, 1839 was approved by Queen Victoria. This placed the new system in effect on January 10th, 1840, although it was not until May 6th of that year that the first adhesive stamp,–the famous “Penny Black” was actually ready for nation‐wide use. Handstamps were used when the Act first went into effect, and under its provisions a single letter not exceeding half an ounce in weight could be sent from any part of the United Kingdom to any other part for one penny if paid when posted, or for two pence if paid when delivered. Earlier reformers had suggested somewhat similar plans, and even had conceived the idea of Government stamps, stamped envelopes, and wrappers. In fact, in the 17th century one M. Velayer of Paris is supposed to have sold “billets” to attach to letters to indicate that the fee for carrying them had been paid, and in 1818 the Kingdom of Sardinia issued stamped sheets of letter paper. There were other experimenters with the idea of prepaid stamps in England about Hill’s time, and he even gave one Knight the credit of suggesting the idea for the adhesive postage stamp. But it was Rowland Hill’s pamphlet “Post Office Reform; Its Importance and Practicability,” (a style of title and in a style of writing later adopted by Barnabas Bates and his followers)–which consolidated these ideas, suggested the adhesive postage stamp, and caught the public eye. In 1839 he published a pamphlet “On the Collection of Postage by Means of Stamps,” and Hill also wrote a book in 1844, “The State and Prospects of Penny Postage,” listing “Measures of improvement not yet affected.” He continued to work for the further reorganization of postal procedure and as late as 1864 wrote “Results of Postal Reform.” Hill recommended many things which have since been put into common use, including frequent collections and deliveries, an increase in the allowable weight of letters, rural distribution, a parcels post, mutual reductions with foreign countries for lower postage, the registry of letters, a simple money order system, economies in operation,–and much else.
In this we find more of the background for our own Barnabas Bates and his work. Hill’s pamphlet of 1837 aroused his deep interest. By that time Bates had had considerable practical experience with postal matters, and he had just resigned as assistant postmaster of New York City. As the article from the New York Atlas of April 18th, 1847, which is quoted in full earlier in this article, said: “Mr. Bates became fully satisfied that the rates of postage were too high and burdensome, and that a reduction would not only relieve the people of a serious and unequal burden, but ultimately yield a greater revenue to the government.” Here, briefly, was the postal situation in the United States at that time. From 1799 to 1815 our postage rates were 8c for a “single” letter going over 500 miles. A “single” letter was one written on a single sheet of paper, folded, sealed with wax, addressed on the outside, and mailed with the postage usually indicated by a rating hand‐stamp put on by the postmaster. Two sheets cost double postage, and so forth,–with every enclosure counted as a separate “sheet.”–so that even ordinary correspondence was most expensive. Because of the War of 1812, even these rates were temporarily increased by 50% in 1815 as a revenue matter, but early in the following year the 1799 rates were re‐established for a short while. Under the Act of April 9, 1816 new and lower rates were established. These were 6c for a single letter going not over 30 miles, and they then scaled upwards to 25c for more than 400 miles. These rates remained in force with but few minor changes and despite the successful competition of the less expensive and more efficient private carriers and expresses. It has been estimated that three times as many letters went by private hands in the 1830’s as through the mails, because of the high postal rates and every traveler carried in his bag many letters for friends and even strangers who asked him to drop them in the post office at the town of his destination. Such were the postal conditions which existed during the early part of the career of Barnabas Bates, while he was Postmaster of Bristol, R.I., when he was a special agent of the Post Office Department and during his association with the New York Post office. It was these rates and the antiquated postal practices and customs that Bates was to crusade against over a long and weary length of time.
Our New York Atlas article says that Bates “early in 1838…furnished Hunts Merchants Magazine with an article in favor of cheap postage…” but the writer finds that this magazine apparently did not begin publication until about 1839. The date quoted may well have been an error, for we do find an article in the March 1840 issue (Vol. II, Page 253) entitled “Post Office Reform‐Cheap Postage” by Barnabas Bates. Bates himself in his later writings asserted that this was the first argument published in America in behalf of the recommended changes, and apparently it was with it that he began his long campaign. The many articles, pamphlets and speeches which followed, by Bates and by the others who came to his aid, all took the same general line, so that a brief digest of this, the first effort to “sell” cheap and uniform postage to the American public may be of special interest.
The article begins with a description of Rowland Hill’s plan for penny postage in Great Britain, which it states had begun to be put into effect, and it urges that a similar plan be adopted in America. It decries our Postmaster General’s act in sending a special agent abroad to investigate the working of the plan, saying that its benefits are obvious. Bates then objects to our Post office system and points out that our Department operates at a loss. He states that the abolishment of the franking privilege would result in greater revenue, and that cheaper postage rates would produce larger revenues through a great increase in the numbers of letters. Bates also objects to the “myriads of letters now sent by private conveyance, which if postage were reduced would be sent by mail.” Rates to Philadelphia of 12 ½ c. and 18 ¾ c. to Baltimore, Providence and Boston are pointed out, and he complains that while citizens have to pay 12 ½ c. for a letter going 80 miles that one can be sent 2000 miles for 25c. Also, that newspapers of any size pay only 1 ½ c. to any part of the United States whether dailies or not, and that these wide disparities should be equalized. He questions the right of the Government to a monopoly, and thinks the country might do as well or better to let private companies carry the mails, and he ends by quoting William Leggett on the dangers of the power of the monopoly thus placed in the hands of the Government! Such was the start of Barnabas Bates’ campaign for postal reform in the United States. It was a relatively mild beginning, for as time went on his appeals,–and those of other who joined with him,–became more and more fervent and impassioned. Bates was, of course, not the only person in this country to observe the adoption of Hill’s system in Great Britain, or to urge its adoption in America. We find no less a personage than Daniel Webster moving that postage rates be reduced and that the use of stamps be inquired into, by a Resolution in Congress on June 10, 1840.
Attached to this Resolution was a clipping from an English newspaper headed “The Penny‐Postage Stamps” containing instructions dated April 28, 1840 for their usage by the public, schedules of the new British postage rates, a reproduction of the Mulready envelope and a drawing representing the Penny Black stamp. These documents formed the base of a story entitled “Daniel Webster, the Father of United States Stamps” which appeared some years ago in one of the philatelic magazines. In it the opinion was offered that Webster was the first sponsor of the idea, and it gave him the honor of starting the movement for cheap postage and the use of postage stamps in this country. However, we have already seen that Barnabas Bates commenced his campaign between 1838 and 1840, and that his first magazine article on the subject appeared before Webster introduced his Resolution, and even before the publication of the instructions in the English newspapers which he attached thereto!
Just who or what inspired Daniel Webster to offer his motion in Congress is not known to the present writer. Doubtless a thorough search of all possible sources in Washington, including the contemporary numbers of the Congressional Globe, predecessor to the present Congressional Record, the file of other Government publications, and the records of The National Archives,–would reveal this and much other evidence of what transpired within and without the Congresses of the 1840’s and the 1850’s on the subject of postal reform. We do know that this Webster resolution was “Submitted, laid upon the table, and ordered to be printed,”–and that, according to the Congressional Globe of the next day, June 11, 1840 (Vol. 8 and Appendix–26th Congress, First Session, 1839–1840) the resolutions “submitted yesterday by Mr. Webster were considered and agreed to.” This would certainly indicate that the Senate had expressed itself as of the opinion that the postage rates should be reduced and that an inquiry should be made as to the use of stamps in connection therewith. This writer has been unable to learn what, if anything further was then done in this matter. The reduction of postage rates in Great Britain had already been called to the attention of the Congress, on February 8, 1839, by Senator Tallmadge who, according to The Congressional Globe of that date “presented a synopsis of a bill before the British Parliament for the reduction and equalization of letter postage,–which was ordered to be printed,” (Senate No. 194, 25th Congress). Many other resolutions and memorials on the subject were introduced by Congressmen and by State Legislatures from time to time throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s. But then, as today, little could be accomplished unless such movements were vigorously fought for, continuously pressed, and favorable public opinion aroused. Age‐old custom is for those in power to oppose any innovation, and where the jobs of an army of Post Office Department employees may be affected, as in this instance, we can assume that Webster’s resolution died a quiet death. It took nearly five more years of zealous toil by citizens such as Barnabas Bates and his associates to get Congress to adopt something approaching “cheap and uniform” postage, and seven years in all were to pass before our first stamps were authorized.
By 1843 Bates’ campaign had progressed materially. We find an article in The New Englander, then beginning publication in New Haven, Conn., which while unsigned very possibly was written by Bates. Entitled, “The Post Office System as an Element of Modern Civilization,” it outlined the necessary qualities of a good Post Office system as,–“Ubiquity,”–“Regularity and Precision,”–“Cheapness,”–“Speed,” and “Security.” It described the new British system which it said must sooner or later be introduced into this and every other country,–it described “penny postage” and told of its final adoption by Parliament, and it also described “Uniformity,”–“Prepayment,”–“Stamps,”–the charge by weight instead of by sheets, and the abolition of franking in Great Britain. The article concluded by pointing out the shortcomings of the American system,–particularly the too‐high rates for letters in comparison with the too‐low rates for newspapers. Accredited to this article, and probably by Bates, is the following in defense of the proposed cheap rates of postage:
“Take away the high price of postage and all letters rush into the post offices as naturally as water runs down hill!”
Also by 1843 things had progressed to the public meeting stage, and on November 24th of that year the first meeting to advance the cause of cheap postage was arranged by Bates and took place in the Merchants Exchange in New York City. The meeting petitioned Congress for a flat rate of postage, of 5c regardless of distance, and the abolition of the franking privilege. Another public meeting was held in New York on January 18, 1844, and still another on February 13, 1845. During all of this time Bates’ efforts also continued along other lines. He wrote for the papers and for the magazines, he published “broadsides” and pamphlets. He made many trips to Washington and argued with Congressmen and Congressional Committees, he delivered many lectures and speeches and conducted an extensive correspondence with friends as well as with enemies of the project. For there were enemies,–as always and as usual, chiefly in the bureaucracy in Washington and elsewhere, which resented the introduction of any new ideas. The postal authorities of the day were particularly opposed to the plan for cheap and uniform postage and predicted that dire things would result if it was adopted,–all in spite of the steadily growing success of the system so recently installed in Great Britain, and the further fact that two more countries, Brazil and Switzerland, had adopted most of the features of Hill’s plan in 1843, including the use of adhesive postage stamps. As is so well stated in the New York Atlas article herein, Postmaster General Charles A. Wickliffe and his 14,000 postmasters, clerks, and other employees presented a formidable army of opposition, fearing that cheaper postage rates would lessen their emoluments, and pamphlets and articles were circulated by this group. The article goes on to say “…such was the opposition in Washington that no editor would heartily espouse the cause. Mr. Wickliffe carried his enmity so far, that he actually requested President Tyler to remove Mr. Bates from a paltry office which he held in the Customs, because of his advocacy of cheap postage.” Whether Bates was so removed this writer could not find out, but as he apparently had no other means of support during the years in which he conducted his cheap postage campaign, the conclusion is that he did continue to hold some such minor office.