Institutional Scholarship

"Revolutionizing the Public Sentiment of the Country": The Abolitionist Postal Campaign of 1835 and the Transformation of the American Public Sphere

TriCollege Digital Repository

Title: "Revolutionizing the Public Sentiment of the Country": The Abolitionist Postal Campaign of 1835 and the Transformation of the American Public Sphere
Author: Lonky, Hannah
Department: Haverford College. Dept. of History
Type: Thesis (B.A.)
Issue Date: 2010
Abstract: In the late spring of 1835, the American Anti-Slavery Society, an abolitionist organization based in New York City, decided to launch a national pamphlet campaign to raise publicity and awareness about their cause. Over the course of the summer of that year, the AASS circulated hundreds of thousands of antislavery newspapers and pamphlets via the federal postal system. What sounds like a harmless junk mail campaign to modern ears was to contemporaries shocking strategy. A massive nation-wide reaction erupted that fall, and the debates that followed about slavery and abolitionism drew unprecedented numbers of Americans into a transformative mass conversation. This thesis examines the abolitionist mail campaign of 1835 as a moment of national crisis and transformation. The crisis reflected and highlighted the ways in which American society was changing as it transitioned from the Early Republic period to the antebellum era. Abolitionism was a new force in American society in the 1830s, out to change (or terrorize, depending on one's perspective) the nation. Religiously-motivated, reform-minded, and dedicated to the cause until their deaths, the abolitionists challenged Americans' conception of the nation, the "sin of slavery," and their role in mediating the two. The American Anti- Slavery Society in particular represented a paradigm shift within the larger antislavery movement. Their ultraist nature, commitment to the pursuit of public opinion, middle-class and business-oriented background, and national aspirations set them apart from other groups. Their decision to pursue a postal campaign demonstrated their understanding of the ways the United States was changing socially, economically, and politically in the first half of the nineteenth century. The national reaction to the mail demonstrated the extent to which Southern slaveholders' interests dominated the country. The specific complaints they voiced against the AASS show that the abolitionists' behavior was just as important an affront to Southern values as the content of their appeals. But Southerners were not the only ones to react to the mail campaign; as Northerners expressed their opinions as well, the mail campaign became a truly national issue. At the same time as the participants in this national conversation expanded, so did the scope of their discourse. In the fall of 1835 and onward, Americans raised issues of censorship, civil liberties, social order, civic participation, privacy, and federalism and states' rights in explicit reference to slavery. Using Jurgen Habermas's theory of public and private spheres as a frame for analysis, I look at the ways these debates changed the constitution and character of the American public sphere. The mail campaign politicized Americans, men and women, black and white, North and South. It drew new participants into the national discourse, shined a light on their positions on "the slave question," and forced them to harden and articulate their opinions in a public forum. Mass participation in these debates marked the emergence of new publics explicitly defined by slavery, which voiced a spectrum of opinions on the issue. The mail campaign also opened up new discursive spaces for slavery and became an umbrella encompassing all the big issues of antebellum society. The introduction of slavery into the public domain had irreversibly changed the country on social and political levels.
Subject: Antislavery movements -- United States -- History -- 19th century
Subject: United States -- Social conditions -- 19th century
Terms of Use:
Permanent URL:

Files in this item

Files Description Size Format
2010LonkyH.pdf Complete Thesis (Haverford users only) 6.736Mb PDF
2010LonkyH(Abridged).pdf Abridged Thesis 3.835Mb PDF
2010LonkyH_release.pdf **Archive Staff Only** 101.5Kb PDF


Lonky, Hannah. ""Revolutionizing the Public Sentiment of the Country": The Abolitionist Postal Campaign of 1835 and the Transformation of the American Public Sphere". 2010. Available electronically from

This item appears in the following Collection(s) Except where otherwise noted, this item's license is described as


Advanced Search


My Account