Trump’s “Compstockery!”


As we witnessed in last week’s Republication convention, when in doubt, go with the golden oldies. Australian songwriter Peter Allen said as much in the fourth stanza of his classic song, “Everything Old Is New Again”, which reads:

“Don’t throw the past away

You might need it some rainy day

Dreams can come true again

When everything old is new again”

In fact, there’s nothing original in Trump’s playbook, and that includes his postal service gambit. Manipulating and militarizing the US Postal Service dates back to 1873 in the form of one Anthony Comstock, a zealot who was fond of describing himself as a “weeder in God’s garden.”

A savvy New York City insider, he created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice declaring himself committed to stamping out smut. But to accomplish this task, he needed a hammer. He turned to political allies in the United States Postal Service who provided him with police powers and the right to carry a weapon.

Still, the weapon was of little use without a law to enforce. So he turned to his friends in industry who reached out to Congress.  “An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” was passed on March 3, 1873, ch. 258, § 2, 17 Stat. 599. Forever after known as the Comstock Law, the statute’s lofty intent was “to prevent the mails from being used to corrupt the public morals.”

“Obscenity” was broadly described and included all print materials advancing birth control, abortion or family planning. Comstock held the post as special agent to the Postal Service for the next 42 years, and during that time bragged that he had prosecuted 3,600 defendants and destroying 160 tons of obscene literature.

In the face of Congressional failure back then, opposition among citizenry stiffened. There was Margaret Sanger who labeled Comstock a “moral eunuch” and edited “The Woman Rebel” whose motto was “Working Women, build up within yourselves a conscious fighting character against all things which enslave you.” 

Sanger not only promoted family planning and women’s access to health care including abortions, but also challenged Comstock’s allies in industry writing, “We know the capitalist class must have a slave class, bred in poverty and reared in ignorance. That is why it is quite consistent with their laws that there should be a heavy penalty of five years’ imprisonment for imparting information as to the means of preventing conception. Industry…(must) undersell its rival competitors. They have only one way to do this, and that is to get labor cheap. The cheapest labor is that of women and children; the larger the number of children in a family, the earlier they enter the factory.”

Our nation then (and hopefully now) maintains the capacity to self-correct. In doing so, we rely on autocrats to over-play their hands. Trump is currently doing so with his face-off’s with LeBron James, Chris Webber and Doc Rivers.

A century ago, Comstock made poor choices as well. For example, he picked a fight with Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw by instigating the placement of his play “Man and Superman” on the “restricted book list” at the New York Public Library.  Queried by the New York Times for his reaction to the affront, Shaw posted this response from London on September 25, 1905:

“Dear Sir – Nobody outside of America is likely to be in the least surprised. Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all.”


The Supreme Court upheld the Comstock Law until 1983. In Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp., 463 U.S. 60, 103 S. Ct. 2875, 77 L. Ed. 2d 469 (1983), the Supreme Court re-examined the Comstock Law and concluded it did not support “a substantial governmental interest.”  In an historic smack down the Court declared, “that a restriction of this scope is more extensive than the Constitution permits, for the government may not reduce the adult population … to reading only what is fit for children.”

Mike Magee is a Medical Historian and Health Economist and author of “Code Blue: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex.“

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