Teal v. Felton,
53 U.S. 284 (1851)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Teal v. Felton, 53 U.S. 12 How. 284 284 (1851)

Teal v. Felton

53 U.S. (12 How.) 284


The 13th and 30th sections of the Act of Congress, passed in 1825, 4 Stat. 105-111, forbid a writing or memorandum from being written on a newspaper, or other printed paper, pamphlet, or magazine, and transmitted by mail.

The Postmaster General directed that if the wrappers of newspapers, pamphlets, or magazines, should be found to contain any manuscript or memorandum of any kind, either written or stamped or marks or signs made in any way by which information shall be asked or communicated, it should be charged with letter postage.

The part of the order relating to marks or signs was not justified by the law.

Hence, where a postmaster refused to deliver a newspaper upon which there was an "initial" unless the person to whom it was addressed would pay letter postage, he was properly held liable in an action for trover. It was not a case calling for discretion in the discharge of his duties. The law, and not the instructions of a department, furnishes the guide to officers.

The state court had jurisdiction to try the case. State courts had jurisdiction over all cases of trover, and the Constitution of the United States did not abrogate their jurisdiction in such cases as the present.

Page 53 U. S. 285

Teal, the plaintiff in error, was postmaster in Syracuse, in the State of New York, and the case arose in the following manner:

The 13th section of the Act of 1825, 4 Stat. 105, provided as follows:

"Any memorandum which shall be written on a newspaper or other printed paper, pamphlet, or magazine and transmitted by mail shall be by mail shall be charged with letter postage."

And the 30th section of the same Act, 4 Stat. 111, provided as follows:

"If any person shall enclose or conceal a letter or other thing or any memorandum in writing in a newspaper, pamphlet, or magazine or in any package of newspapers &c. or make any writing or memorandum thereon which he shall have delivered into any post office or to any person for that purpose in order that the same may be carried by post free of letter postage, he shall forfeit the sum of five dollars for every such offense, and the letter, newspaper, package, memorandum, or other thing shall not be delivered to the person to whom it is directed until the amount of single letter postage is paid for each article of which the package is composed."

The act of 1845, sections 1, 2, and 16, fixes the rates of postage upon letters and newspapers and defines a newspaper to be

"a printed publication issued in numbers, consisting of not more than two sheets, and published at short intervals of not more than a month, conveying intelligence of passing events, and the bona fide extras and supplements of any such publication."

On 4 December, 1846, the Postmaster General issued the following circular:

"To Postmasters:"

"I am directed by the Postmaster General to call your special attention to the multiplied and increasing attempts to violate the laws and defraud the revenue by writing on the wrappers, margin, or other portion of newspapers, pamphlets, and magazines, sent by mail."

"The cheap postage system has removed every reasonable excuse for violating or evading the law, and too much vigilance cannot be exercised by postmasters to detect and punish the offenders, and public sentiment, when well informed, will not fail to sustain you in the faithful discharge of this duty, which is as imperative upon you as any other. That frauds of this kind may be detected and traced to their origin, you are particularly instructed to stamp, or mark in writing, any transient (by which is meant all not regularly sent to subscribers) newspapers, pamphlets, or magazines, with the name of the office and the amount of postage. "

Page 53 U. S. 286

"The wrappers of all such newspapers, pamphlets, and magazines, when they have reached their destination, should be carefully removed, and if upon inspection found to contain any manuscript or memorandum of any kind, either written or stamped, or by marks or signs made in any way, either upon any newspapers, printed circular, price current, pamphlet, or magazine, or the wrapper in which it is enclosed, by which information shall be asked for or communicated, except the name and address of the person to whom it is directed, such newspaper, printed circular, price current, pamphlet, or magazine, with the wrapper in which it is enclosed, shall be charged with letter postage by weight. If the person to whom the newspaper, printed circular, price current, pamphlet, or magazine is directed refuses to pay such letter postage thereon, the postmaster will immediately transmit the same to the office from whence it was forwarded and request the postmaster thereof to prosecute the same for the penalty of five dollars, as prescribed by the 30th section of the act of 1825. Suits may be brought either in district courts or before state magistrates having civil jurisdiction in actions of debt for this amount under the respective state laws; the name of the sender written or stamped either upon the newspaper, printed circular, price current, pamphlet, or magazine, or the wrapper in which it is enclosed, communicates such information, as subjects it to letter postage, and the consequential penalties if such postage is not paid at the place of its destination. The diminution of the revenue of the department under the cheap postage system, and the great and increasing demand for additional mail facilities throughout the country, whose territory now extends to the Pacific, renders it absolutely necessary not only that every cent of lawful revenue be collected and accounted for, but that the utmost vigilance should be exercised for the prevention of fraud and the sure and speedy infliction of the proper penalty upon the offender. This can only be accomplished by the strictest attention of postmasters, who are the sworn agents of the department, and bound to see the laws faithfully administered."


"2d Assistant Postmaster General"

"Post Office Department, Dec'r 4, 1846"

In February, 1847, there came to the post office at Syracuse, a newspaper, called the Michigan Expositor, which was put into the box of Mr. Hicks. There was an initial upon the wrapper of the paper, distinct from the direction and no part of it, the initial being a single letter. In consequence of this, it was charged with letter postage, which Mr. Hicks refused to

Page 53 U. S. 287

pay, but tendered the newspaper postage. It was admitted that Mr. Hicks had authority to demand the paper for Mary C. Felton, to whom it was addressed, and that its value was six cents.

Hicks brought an action of trover against Teal, the postmaster, before a justice of the peace for Onondaga County, before whom the question of jurisdiction was raised. The justice, however, sustained his jurisdiction and gave judgment against the postmaster, the cause being tried by a jury for six cents damages and two dollars and eighty-nine cents costs.

A writ of certiorari removed the cause to the Court of Common Pleas in and for the County of Onondaga, which, at May term, 1847, affirmed the judgment of the justice, with twenty-two dollars and ninety-five cents costs.

Teal then carried the case to the supreme court of the State of New York, which, in June, 1848, approved the judgment of the court of common pleas, with thirty-seven dollars and sixty cents additional costs, making, in the whole, sixty dollars and fifty-five cents.

This decision was reviewed by the Court of Appeals, which decided that there was no error in it and gave judgment for seventy-five dollars and sixty-four cents, making, in the whole, one hundred and thirty-six dollars and nineteen cents.

A writ of error, sued out by Teal, brought the case up to this Court.

Page 53 U. S. 289

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