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Going Postal: A Libertarian Tradition


BENJAMIN TUCKER, editor of Liberty (1881–1908) and the prototypical 19th-century radical libertarian, constantly experimented with strategies to educate people away from government. He particularly delighted in anti-government stickers, which he declared to be “highly useful” because of their cheapness and versatility. The stickers were “invented” by Steven T. Byington, who also translated Max Stirner’s Ego and His Own, and they were advertised in Liberty as “aggressive, concise … assertions and arguments in sheets, gummed and perforated, to be planted everywhere as broadcast seed for thought.” Each sheet contained 25 stickers that were particularly appropriate for gluing onto envelopes.

Urging all freedom sympathizers to use them persistently, Tucker assured them, “The post-office department has ruled that these stickers may be placed upon mail matter of the first, third, and fourth classes.” Tucker knew whereof he spoke because he had tested the postal regulations on several occasions. His first attempt (1906) to mail an envelope with a seditious sticker failed. A hostile postal clerk rejected the envelope as unmailable. The offending message had read, “Considering what a nuisance the government is, the man who says we cannot get rid of it must be called a confirmed pessimist.”

Unfortunately for the clerk, Tucker had a long history of taunting the post office. Indeed, he seemed to relish doing so. The Comstock Act (1873) had granted wide authority to the postal service to refuse to carry “obscene” literature and to punish those who attempted to transmit it. (Of course, obscenity was broadly defined, and often politically so, to include radical literature.) In 1882, when the Massachusetts authorities declared Walt Whitman’s book of poetry Leaves of Grass to be obscene and, so, again unmailable, Tucker advertised it in Liberty. He appended a challenge to the various officials responsible for the book’s suppression, whom he addressed by name. Advising them of his intention to sell Whitman’s book, Tucker offered to deliver a copy of it to their place of choice in Boston. There were no takers.

After his sticker was rejected by the clerk, Tucker returned to the post office the next day with a parcel bearing a sticker reading, “Whatever really useful thing government does for men, they would do for themselves if there was no government.” He asked to see the superintendent who determined that this particular parcel was, indeed, mailable. Thereupon Tucker handed him a sheet of stickers bearing various messages and asked for a ruling on each one.

Three were unacceptable, including the one previously mentioned as unmailable. The other two read, “Government regularly enforces its commands by the threat of violence; and government often commands things which it is ridiculous and outrageous to enforce by such a threat”; and, “At almost every point in history government has been found to be the greatest scandal in the world. Why? And when anything else has been extremely scandalous, this has usually been on account of its association with government. Why?”

Tucker then prepared three packages for mailing to which he affixed the three rejected stickers, attaching as well a letter to the New York state postmaster, which asked for an official ruling on them. The postmaster shifted the decision “up to Washington” where Frank Hitchcock, the first U.S. assistant postmaster general, ruled that the packages were mailable. Thus, the municipal, state, and federal postal authorities all gave a nod to what Tucker called “these bits of gummed paper.”

An undated article about the stickers (from the New York Public Library, Benjamin Tucker Papers) explained what happened next. A bomb exploded in Union Square and a predictable crackdown on radicals ensued. Tucker wrote, “[A] New York guardian of the peace saw my friend Michael Dumas, a usually industrious silk weaver upon whom economic monopoly was then enforcing a period of inactivity, interrupt his promenade upon Sixth Avenue, come to a halt beside a letter-box, place his hand upon it, and then resume the stroll.” The police officer, dubbed an “emulator of Sherlock Holmes,” investigated. To his horror, he found a piece of white paper affixed to a mailbox. It read, “Don’t enlist in any service where you are liable to be ordered to help kill a man (or men) that you think ought not to be killed.”

Stickered mail

Following Dumas down the street, the policeman arrested the dangerous radical at the next corner after another mailbox received another seditious sticker. Arrested for being “a suspicious person,” Dumas was imprisoned overnight until the city magistrate could figure out how the state of New York had been injured by the placement of the bit of paper. Unable to puzzle it out, the magistrate sent Dumas to the U.S. commissioner. Tucker reported on the encounter, “Mr. Dumas afterwards told me that the commissioner said to him in a fatherly way: Now, don’t paste any more of those things on letter-boxes, and tell your friends not to do so either.’”

A few days later, a New York paper carried a complaint from a man whose mail had arrived with a sticker attached. The postmaster of New York ordered that all mail bearing stickers be held until an investigation into the origin of the sedition was completed. Tucker wrote to the postmaster — whether he attached a sticker is unknown — expressing his indignation at the “imputation of mystery” about the stickers’ source. Giving the address of the Liberty offices as the place of their sale, he asked what were the intentions of the post office. He was duly informed that the sticker in question had been declared unmailable and any envelope to which it was affixed would be returned to the sender.

Meanwhile, the venerable libertarian Joseph A. Labadie wrote to Tucker of a similar incident in Detroit, Michigan. A great fan of the stickers, Labadie’s outgoing radical pamphlets were starting to be returned to him by the post office because of the stickers affixed. Tucker was especially delighted by the irony of the sticker singled out for censorship. It was a quotation from John Stuart Mill:

Where everything is done through the bureaucracy, nothing to which the bureaucracy is really adverse can be done at all.

Another ironically censored sticker read,

The institution known as “government” cannot continue to last unless many a man is willing to be government’s agent in committing what he himself regards as an abominable crime.

Tucker declared the entire city of Detroit to be in “a glorious state of excitement” over the post office’s refusal to carry Labadie’s mail. The newspapers were full of articles, sometimes running on the front page, and editorials that debated whether the post office was censoring or behaving responsibly. Portraits of Labadie were published in their pages and the sticker messages were displayed.

An editorial in the Detroit Journal was entitled “Making the Government Ridiculous.” Three days later, the paper ran another editorial entitled “Are We to Have Press Censorship?” Calling Labadie “harmless Joe,” the editorial disputed the constitutional right of the post office to “debar an American citizen from the use of the mails.”

In a letter to Tucker dated April 8, 1908, “harmless Joe” wrote, “Now see what you went and done! Led me astray in tempting me to use them awful stickers which the P.O. authorities can’t understand….”

On May 21, Labadie brought his corrupter up to date on the situation in Detroit, including the fact that he had lost his job (on a government water board) over the use of the stickers. “Hell has indeed been to pay in Detroit,” he wrote.

Newspapers across the county were running daily articles about “the right to think unpopular thoughts…. Letters began to pour in to the papers, to the [water board] commissioners, petitions were started, hundreds of the most influential men in town signing for my reinstatement.”

The meeting of the board included a vote to rescind the resolution by which Labadie had lost his job. He declared to Tucker (June 9), “I am accounted today the most popular man in town.” Nor did his popularity wane quickly. Labadie updated his friend (August 25), “Re my reinstatement by the Water Board, I am simply cock of the walk, and am treated with courtly deference by the whippersnappers who have respect only for power and influence.”

Although the stickers were popular in radical circles, their use declined sharply when a fire in early 1908 destroyed the Liberty offices along with much of its stock of merchandise. The fire coincided with a low tide in radical activity in America. Soon after losing the paper that had been his most important life’s work, a discouraged Tucker departed for Europe, where he spent the rest of his life. With his departure, the libertarianism of that era seemed to lose the sparkle and energy that had been captured by “these bits of gummed paper.”

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).