Getting at People, Then and Now

"Doxxing" is not nice. The aim is to harm someone whose opinions you don't like by publishing his personal contact information across the internet, thus exposing him to harassment by nutters like the Antifa types.  Or by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  (Fans of doxxing seem to be mostly on the left.)  But because it is tied to the internet, that doesn't mean it's a modern thing.  The principle was put into effect prominently, for example, 185 years ago.

The deed was done by none other than the seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson.  Famously irascible, Jackson had participated in scores of duels by the time he reached the White House, taking a bullet in two of them and killing his opponent in another.  Backing down, apologizing, or admitting mistakes was not his thing — sort of like another president we might think of.

The year was 1835, and the abolitionist movement was picking up steam in the North.  A few years earlier, William Lloyd Garrison had started publishing his weekly abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.  Garrison had also joined with others in the North to form the American Anti-Slavery Society.  Meanwhile, Jackson, founder of the modern Democratic Party, was big on white supremacy.

Now, Garrison and his cohorts decided, in the words of historian Daniel Walker Howe, "to undertake a major southern propaganda offensive."  In doing so, they would take advantage of recent improvements in the U.S. Postal Service, which, though it hardly bears comparison with the internet, was then America's only reasonably reliable nationwide communications system.

The target audience for this "propaganda offensive," Howe tells us, "consisted of twenty thousand influential southern whites, many of whom had previously criticized slavery in conventional Jeffersonian terms as an unfortunate legacy from previous generations, a problem that could be solved with the help of colonization when the time was ripe."  (Colonization was the idea of sending away freed African-Americans to Africa.)  The abolitionists hoped to persuade this audience that colonization was a pipe dream and that it was time to embrace outright emancipation.

Amos Kendall was then the U.S. postmaster general and a member of the president's Kitchen Cabinet, and now he had a problem on his hands.  Local postmasters across the South were clamoring for guidance on what to do with this "dangerous" literature coming through their post offices.  Many postmasters were already setting it aside, if not trashing it, fearing that it would fall into the wrong hands — the hands of literate blacks.  Fresh in their minds was the recent bloody rebellion led by one literate black, Nat Turner.  But federal law required that mail be delivered to the addressee, so Kendall was in a quandary, and he took it to his boss.  Did they really have to deliver such mail?

Hell no, said Jackson, and easy to imagine that those were his exact words.  The troublemakers were "monsters" who were stirring up "the horrors of a servile war" and deserved "to atone for this wicked attempt with their lives."

Kendall proposed to implement the government censorship quietly, with no public fuss.  But that was not Jackson's style.  Nothing less than formal, full blown federal censorship would do.  Howe, the historian, tells us that Jackson wanted Congress to enact legislation "to prohibit, under severe penalties, the circulation in the Southern States, through the mail, of incendiary publications intended to instigate the slaves to insurrection."   

It was now August, however.  Congress was in recess, and Old Hickory was impatient.  He ordered Kendall to tell his postmasters to go ahead and deliver the material, but only to those "who will demand them as subscribers," and then to publish their names as those who supported "exciting the negroes to insurrection and to massacre."  Doxxed!

Congress in due course declined to accommodate Jackson's wishes, but Kendall found ways to carry them out anyway, and it had the desired effects.  The addressees, publicly "outed" as they were in the midst of their slave-holding neighbors, either went suddenly quiet or turned vociferous in their defense of slavery.  Southern states and localities, moreover, enacted crushing censorship laws.  Such laws were upheld because the First Amendment at this time was deemed to apply only to the federal government; it was not applied to state jurisdictions until after the Civil War.

The "propaganda offensive" had backfired, and the antislavery societies knew it.  They pulled in their horns and turned instead to expanding their proselytizing efforts in the North.  The outbreak of the Civil War was still a quarter-century away, and now the North-South rift widened.

Howe in his history of the period (What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1845) concludes that Jackson's diktats against the abolitionists "may well represent the largest peacetime violation of civil liberty in U.S. history."  It was, moreover, a civil liberty violation of the worst kind — a betrayal by the government, the supposed upholder of civil liberties, whereas such violations by private individuals or entities, while reprehensible, cause harm that is relatively confined.

Jackson's doxxing and the internet's incarnation of it are a blight on civil discourse, except today, the online harassed can harass back — vigilante justice.  A notable example was demonstrated by retired Major League pitcher Curt Schilling.  He had sent a tweet to his teenage daughter congratulating her on joining her college softball team.  This brought on a string of obscene and violent tweets directed at his daughter, to which Schilling did not take kindly.  After only an hour's worth of sleuthing on the internet, he doxxed the culprits, and the results it brought are legendary.

While President Jackson's targets were unable to retaliate, today's targets are quite able.  The blight shows few signs of letting up.

Bill Dunne is a writer living in Connecticut.

Image: David via Flickr.

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