Reconfiguring the Old South: Solving the Problem of Slavery, 1787–1838

Teaching the Article
Exercise 6

Abolition Petition and Mail Campaigns

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Few other developments stirred the issue of slavery as the abolitionist mail campaign launched against the peculiar institution in 1835 did. Part of a strategy adopted by the American Anti-Slavery Society (aas), the campaign sought to take advantage of a newly efficient postal system and a treasure chest provided by a handful of wealthy northerners. Using these resources, the aas mailed tens of thousands of antislavery pamphlets and tracts to southern destinations through the U.S. mail.

Across the South, reaction to the abolition mail campaign bordered on apoplexy. The “abolition crisis” became a household phrase in the region. A flurry of public meetings denounced the mail campaign in vitriolic terms. Vigilance committees were formed in many communities to identify abolitionist agents at work in the South and watch out for slave unrest. Vigilante justice often punished those accused of distributing abolitionist literature or “interfering” with the slave population. Many white southerners, and especially slaveholders, saw the 1835 abolition mail campaign as nothing short of a terrorist attack, the sending of a dangerous poison through the mail. They believed the attack justified almost any countermeasure, including summary justice and restrictions on civil liberties.

As the South responded to the mail campaigns and parallel efforts to petition Congress, many slaveholders saw a need to combat the abolitionist critics on humanitarian grounds. The ideology of paternalism emphasized the domestic and familial nature of slavery and portrayed the institution as one with broad social benefits. Paternalism provided the perfect counter to abolitionist charges that slaveholders were inhumane. Lower South leaders such as John C. Calhoun offered a sophisticated articulation of the new southern commitment to paternalism as the ideology of slaveholding. But many upper South politicians, like longtime Jefferson disciple William Cabell Rives of Virginia, still refused to embrace slavery as a positive good.


  1. The newspaper articles listed below all give accounts of public meetings held in 1835 to protest the abolitionist mail campaign. What sentiments did the resolutions produced by the meetings have in common? In what ways did they differ?
  2. What do the opinions about alleged abolitionists and other strangers expressed in these newspaper articles tell you about southern attitudes in 1835?
  3. How would you compare those attitudes with American attitudes in the “war on terror” conducted since 9/11?
  4. The first two primary sources listed for this section allow you to do your own analysis of the positions held by William Cabell Rives and John C. Calhoun during their Senate debate. How do you think each felt about slavery, race, the future of the country, and the other senator?

Primary Sources

  1. Exchange between William Campbell Rives and John C. Calhoun, in Register of Debates in Congress, Feb. 7, 1837, 706–723, esp. 717-19.
  2. John C. Calhoun, “Further Remarks in Debate of His Fifth Resolution,” in The Papers of John C. Calhoun, XIV, ed. Clyde N. Wilson (Columbia, S.C., 1981), 80–86.
  3. “An Abolitionist Caught,” Nashville Republican, Aug. 11, 1835.
  4. “Wilmington Meeting,” Raleigh North Carolina Standard, Sept. 17, 1835.
  5. “Meeting in Halifax,” Raleigh North Carolina Standard, Oct. 8, 1835.
  6. “Public Meeting in Sparta, Hancock County,” Milledgeville Southern Recorder, Nov. 20, 1835.

Further Reading