This 1959 letter to Virginia Governor Wise from John Randolph Tucker, Virginia’s Attorney-General at the time.
It outlines Virginia’s legal assertion that it had the right to censor the mail and prosecute those importing Abolitionist literature into the state of Virginia. It details the process of destroying material by fire in the presence of a judge.
Tucker skirts the First Amendment issues and focuses on the Postal Service’s role as a delivery system as opposed to a role akin to a publisher.
Tucker (1823–1897) was from a distinguished slaveholding family, he was elected Virginia’s attorney general in 1857 and after re-election served during the American Civil War. After a pardon and Congressional Reconstruction, Tucker was elected as U.S. Congressman (1875-1887), and later served as the first dean of the Washington and Lee University Law School.
The letter opens Willam Lloyd Garrison’s book, The new “reign of terror” in the slaveholding states, for 1859-60, published in New York in 1860.
Authorised Violation of the Mail
RICHMOND, Nov. 26th, 1859.
SIR, -The question is submitted to me for an Opinion as to the effect of the law of Virginia upon the distribution of mail matter when it is of an incendiary character. A newspaper, printed in the State of Ohio, propagating abolition doctrines, is sent to a person through a post ofiice in Virginia.
What is the duty of the Postmaster in the premises?
The law of Virginia (Code of Va., chap. 198, sec. 24) provides that:
“If a Postmaster or Deputy Postmaster know that any such book or writing (referring to such as advise or incite negroes to rebel or make insurrection, or inculcate resistance to the right of property of masters in their slaves) has been received at his office in the mail, he shall give notice thereof to some Justice, who shall inquire into the circumstances, and have such book or writing burned in his presence if it appear to him that the person to whom it was directed subscribed therefor, knowing its character, or agreed to receive it for circulation to aid the purposes of abolitionists, the Justice shall commit such person to jail. If any Postmaster or Deputy Postmaster violate this section, he shall be fined not exceeding two hundred dollars.”