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John G. West Political Scientist and Cultural Critic

Sunday Mails: The First Debate over the Meaning of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment

Published in Religion and American Law: An Encyclopedia, edited by Paul Finkelman (Garland Publishing, 2000)

The Sunday mails debate during the early nineteenth century was the first national controversy to focus on the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. The debate was sparked by the practice of transporting and delivering mail on Sundays. While the subject might seem arcane today, the issues underlying the controversy reached to the very core of American constitutionalism.

To understand why the Sunday mails battle arose at all, one must first grasp the significance of Sunday (or the “Christian sabbath”) in nineteenth-century America. Many Americans regarded Sunday as a bulwark of republicanism because of its role in propagating civic morality. On this one day each week citizens were encouraged to forswear self-interest and reflect upon their higher duties to both God and man. The perceived civic importance of Sunday, as well as a concern for religious liberty, led to laws closing down businesses and restricting travel on the day. While these laws undeniably coerced those who did not observe Sunday as their sabbath, they protected the liberty of most religious adherents who did by ensuring that they could not be compelled to work on their chosen day of worship.

Sunday mails constituted an exception to the general suspension of business on the first day of the week, and in 1808 Massachusetts tried to stop the practice by prosecuting a mail coach for running on Sunday. But the indictment was dropped after it was determined that mail carriers were legally exempt from the state’s ban on Sunday travel. The relevant statute allowed Sunday travel if it was necessary, and in Commonwealth v. Knox (1809), the Massachusetts supreme court held that carrying the mail on Sunday under a contract with the Postmaster General constituted a legitimate “necessity” arising from the federal government’s constitutional authority over the mails.

The Massachusetts case was an oddity. For the most part, Sunday mails attracted little notice during the nation’s early history, largely because they were confined to the unobtrusive operation of mail coaches. The situation changed in 1810 when Congress enacted a new postal law. The statute dramatically expanded the scope of Sunday mails by requiring mail to be actually delivered to customers every day of the week that it arrived. In the larger towns and cities, this meant that post offices would now be open Sundays. Suddenly the practice of Sunday mails became considerably more intrusive. In many towns and villages, the post office was the only commercial establishment open on Sunday, and it invariably became the focal point for widespread sabbath-breaking. Citizens flocked to the post office to obtain their commercial newspapers and business correspondence and to swap news with their friends. At the same time, postmasters and their clerks who believed that they must refrain from secular labor on Sunday confronted a dilemma. They either worked on Sunday or they lost their jobs.

Almost immediately Congress began receiving petitions urging an end to both the delivery and the carrying of mail on Sundays. The petitions were respectfully received, but in the end nothing was done and the matter was dropped.

Anti-Sunday mail efforts revived in the mid-1820s when evangelical reformers initiated a movement to increase the voluntary observance of the sabbath. This second campaign quickly eclipsed the first. Soon Congress was being inundated with petitions, public meetings were being held, and newspapers were heatedly debating the merits of the issue. From 1827 through 1830, the House of Representatives alone received more than one-thousand petitions on the subject.

Critics of Sunday mails put forth several arguments, but their most compelling line of attack focused on the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. They claimed that Sunday mails subverted religious liberty in two ways. First, and most obviously, it forced postal workers to choose between their faith and their job. More subtly, it placed the government in the role of undercutting the religious beliefs of a large number of citizens. By requiring mail service on Sundays, the government was declaring as official policy that the sabbath need not be respected.

Defenders of Sunday mails dismissed the religious liberty claims of postal workers, arguing that postmasters and their clerks were not really being coerced because they could always resign. These defenders further maintained that to stop the mails on Sunday would contravene the First Amendment and establish a religion by officially sanctioning Sunday as God’s sabbath. Finally, they denounced their opponents as scheming to unify church and state and implied that they did not even have the right to petition Congress on the subject. This last attack was justly decried by the Sunday mail protestors, who pointed out that religious adherents had the same constitutional rights to become involved in politics as other citizens.

The vehemently anti-religious rhetoric of many Sunday mail supporters did not mean that they were all anti-religious. In fact, many were dissenting evangelicals who had never quite accepted the public role of religion that was being championed by nineteenth-century evangelical reformers like Lyman Beecher and Francis Wayland. Political coalitions do not always fit into neat categories.

The response of the federal government to this second anti-Sunday mails campaign was mixed. John McLean, later appointed to the Supreme Court, was postmaster general during part of the campaign. While publicly defending Sunday mails, he quietly agreed to close down a few post offices on Sunday. Congressman Richard Johnson was bolder. He produced two legislative reports sharply attacking the proposed ban on Sunday mails on establishment clause grounds. Thousands of copies of these reports were distributed across the country, and they helped turn the tide against the protestors. The issue finally reached the floor of Congress when Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey offered a bill in 1830 to abolish Sunday mails. The bill was tabled after a brief debate.

In the short term, then, the second Sunday mails campaign proved as ineffectual as the first. But the controversy continued to simmer and eventually the anti-Sunday mail forces achieved much of their demands. By 1863, evangelical reformer Talcot Chambers could boast that the protests had “caused a reduction of Sunday-mail service to an amount scarcely one fourth of what it was when the question was first mooted.” Further lobbying in the early twentieth century succeeded in shutting down all post offices on Sunday.

The Sunday mails debate remains an important episode in American constitutional history because it articulated two radically different conceptions of religious freedom. Opponents of Sunday mails championed a broad view, maintaining that government coercion of religious adherents could include far more than fines and imprisonment. They further argued that the government could inhibit free exercise by adopting policies that explicitly attacked the religious beliefs of certain groups. The other conception of religious liberty was far narrower. According to Sunday mail defenders, only the most direct forms of coercion interfered with the free exercise of religion. Both views would reappear in future debates over church and state in America.


American State Papers. Class VII: Post Office Department. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1834.

John, Richard. “Taking Sabbatarianism Seriously: The Postal System, the Sabbath, and the Transformation of the American Political Culture.” Journal of the Early Republic. Winter 1990. 10: 517-567.

West, John G. “Chapter Three: Evangelicals and the Sunday Mails,” in The Politics of Revelation and Reason: Religion and Civic Life in the New Nation. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1996.  

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.
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