February 1, 1861
On February 1, 1861, lame duck President James Buchanan appointed the Horatio King, of Paris, to the position of Unite States Postmaster General.
King had been serving as Assistant Postmaster General since 1854. His promotion to the top spot came about because Joseph Holt, who had been Postmaster General, accepted a new assignment as Secretary of War.
Before King’s formal appointment became official, he fielded a delicate inquiry.
The Continental Congress had instituted the franking privilege in 1776, whereby Congressmen were allowed to mail materials to constituents at U. S. government expense, merely by signing the outside of the envelope.
In late January of 1861, Acting Postmaster General King received a letter from South Carolina Congressman John D. Ashmore.
Representative Ashmore asks whether the "existing relations" between South Carolina and the federal government would alter his "franking privilege" to distribute materials to his constituents.
What Ashmore meant be "existing relations" was up to King to define.
South Carolina had seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. Now, less than a month later, Ashmore wonders whether he can mail over 1,000 "volumes of ‘public documents,’" using his franking privilege.
The Buchanan Administration had until then not responded formally to South Carolina’s action. King’s response would be the first official statement denying the legitimacy of secession.
Horatio King responds coyly "that the theory of the administration is that the relations of South Carolina to the general Government have been in nothing changed by her recent act of secession; and this being so, you are of course entitled to the franking privilege."
The soon-to-be Postmaster General further appeals to Ashmore’s judgment, "If, however, as I learn is the case, you sincerely and decidedly entertain the conviction that by that act South Carolina ceased to be a member of the confederacy, and is now a foreign State, it will be for you to determine how far you can conscientiously avail yourself of a privilege the exercise of which assumes that your own conviction is erroneous."
Horatio King was replaced as Postmaster General with the administration change in March of 1861. Near the end of the Civil War, in 1864, the Union extended franking privileges to soldiers writing to their families. Instead of paying postage, Union soldiers signed the outside of their envelopes and labeled them "soldier mail" and the letters were delivered to their destinations. The Confederate army did not offer this privilege to its soldiers.
King, Horatio. Turning on the Light. http://books.google.com/books?id=jjNyAAAAMAAJ&ots=0mgT2fayng&dq=turning%20on%20the%20light%20horatio%20king&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
- How could the franking privilege help a democracy?
- Why might some people disagree with the franking privilege?
- Who has franking privileges today?
Transcripts from "Turning on the Light: A dispassionate survey of President Buchanan's administration, from 1870 to its close" printed by J. B. Lippincott Co. in 1895
Anderson, S.C., Jan. 24, 1861
My Dear Sir, -- I have in my possession some one thousand to twelve hundred volumes of "public documents," being my proportion of the same as a member of the thirty-sixth Congress. They were forwarded me in mail-sacks and are now lying in my library. Since the date of the ordinance of secession (December 20, 1860) of South Carolina I have not used the franking privilege, nor will I attempt to do so without the special permission of the Department. To pay the postage on these books, etc., would cost me a large sum, and one I am not prepared to expend. The books are of no use to me, but might be to my constituents, for whom they were intended, if distributed among them. Have I the right to distribute them under existing relations? If so, please inform me. Having said that I have not used the franking privilege since the 20th December, I need hardly add that I shall not do so, even on a "public document," unless you authorize it.
I am, with great respect,
Truly and sincerely yours,
Hon Horatio King,
Post-Office Department, January 28, 1861.
Sir,-- In answer to your letter of the 24th instant, asking if you have the right, “under existing relations,” to frank and distribute certain public documents, I have the honor to state that the theory of the administration is that the relations of South Carolina to the general Government have been in nothing changed by her recent act of secession; and this being so, you are of course entitled to the franking privilege until the first Monday in December next. If, however, as I learn is the case, you sincerely and decidedly entertain the conviction that by that act South Carolina ceased to be a member of the confederacy, and is now a foreign State, it will be for you to determine how far you can conscientiously avail yourself of a privilege the exercise of which assumes that your own conviction is erroneous, and plainly declares that South Carolina is still in the Union, and that you are still a member of the Congress of the United States.
I am, very respectfully,
your obedient servant,
Acting P. M.- General