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This Day in History: Benjamin Franklin, first Postmaster General

On this day in 1775, the Continental Congress creates a postal system and appoints Benjamin Franklin as the first Postmaster General.

It’s hard for modern Americans to understand the importance of a post office in 1775. We are more likely to complain about postal inefficiency and to joke about “snail mail.” But for our ancestors, establishment of the post office was a bold move—and it was yet another thumb in the eye of the British King.

An early postal stamps, issued in 1847. It depicts Franklin, as the first Postmaster General.

Remember, the American colonists had been accustomed to using a British postal service. Obviously, that would no longer do once the Revolution began. British messengers could not be put in charge of sensitive communications! Something else was needed. Creating an American postal service was not only practical, but it also became another expression of independence from Britain.

Benjamin Franklin was the obvious choice for Postmaster General. He was a newspaper man, which would have made him intimately familiar with the workings of a post office. At the time, newspaper printing and postal services went hand-in-hand. For many years, the person that controlled the post office could also determine which newspapers were delivered and/or what it would cost to deliver them. Franklin had been on the wrong side of that relationship for a time, but then he became joint postmaster general in 1753.

Franklin changed the system, ensuring that no one would get special treatment. All newspapers would be delivered for the same small fee. In fact, he improved the postal service so much that it recorded its first profit in 1760! Despite the positive changes that he’d made, the British fired him in 1774 because his sympathies lay with the disgruntled colonists.

You can see why the Continental Congress would want him to serve as Postmaster General. He held the position for more than a year before leaving to serve as an ambassador to France.

Later, when America had gained her independence and a new Constitution was established, creation of a United States post office was considered critically important to the health of the nation. Indeed, support of the postal service was nothing if not patriotic! The postal system allowed every American to participate in the government. Through the post office, everyone had access to newspapers, information, and public opinion.

Alexix de Tocqueville famously described the effect of the postal system on the American frontier. A pioneer, he wrote, “[is] a highly civilized being, who consents, for a time, to inhabit the backwoods, and who penetrates into the wilds of the New World with the Bible, an axe, and a file of newspapers. It is difficult to imagine the incredible rapidity with which public opinion circulates in the midst of these deserts. I do not think that so much intellectual intercourse takes place in the most enlightened and populous districts of France. It cannot be doubted that, in the United States, the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic.”

Today, the post office represents inefficiency. Back then, it represented Americans’ thirst for knowledge. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go back to that state of affairs?

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