Pornography and the Post Office

Gary Gerstle tells the story of Anthony Comstock, the man who tried to stamp out pornography in the final decades of the nineteenth century, using the US Postal Service as his weapon. Where he succeeded and how he ultimately failed still has echoes now, even in the age of the internet.


Talking Points: 


States were exempted from the Bill of Rights from the 1790s until essentially the 1960s.

  • Some states pursued extraordinary influence over the lives of their citizens. 
  • There were always states that were more liberal and more repressive.
  • For many Americans, the government was the state government.


Anthony Comstock was a moral crusader who used the postal service as the vehicle of anti-vice politics at the federal level.

  • The federal government can only exercise the powers mentioned in the constitution.
  • The constitution doesn’t give the government the power to regulate morals but it does give the government power over the post office.
  • The post office was a large and efficacious bureaucracy.
  • Any mail traveling between states was carried by a federal agency; Comstock seized upon this as a national censorship mechanism. 


Today, the dynamics have largely reversed. Instead of seeing the federal government as a way to control states, today’s moralists want to punt things back to the states.

  • This has been particularly effective in the case of abortion.


Further Learning: 


And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking

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