This Day in History: Things you never knew about the post office
On this day in 1792, George Washington signs an act to establish a post office. You would not recognize the 1700s version of the United States Postal Service—and you might be surprised at the reasons Americans wanted it.
The post office gave Americans unprecedented access to information and was considered quite efficient for its time. Indeed, support of the postal service was nothing if not patriotic.
To understand the post office in 1792, you have to first understand what the postal service meant to the colonists during the Revolution.
For many years, the colonists had been served by a British postal service. But as the Revolution began, they needed a dependable method of communication between Congress and the army—clearly they could not rely upon British messengers! Thus, when the colonists created their own postal service, that decision was yet another expression of their independence from Britain.
The colonists chose Benjamin Franklin as their Postmaster General. He was a natural choice.
Franklin was a newspaper man who had served in the position before. 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 borne the brunt of that relationship before when his newspapers were barred from delivery in Philadelphia. When he became joint postmaster general in 1753, he changed the system, ensuring that all newspapers would be delivered for the same small fee. No one would get special treatment.
Franklin improved the postal service so much that it recorded its first profit in 1760. Despite the positive changes he’d made, the British fired him in 1774 because his sympathies lay with the disgruntled colonists.
With this background, Franklin was a natural choice for America’s first Postmaster General in 1775. He served in that position for more than a year but left the country in 1776 to serve as an ambassador to France.
By February 20, 1792, when Washington signed the Postal Service Act, continuance of the system was considered critically important to the health of the nation. The postal system allowed every American to participate in the government. Through the post office, everyone had access to newspapers, information, and public opinion.
We make fun of “snail mail” today and rely on the Internet for our news, but early Americans relied heavily on the postal service.
Alexis de Tocqueville praised the ability of Americans to stay informed in “Democracy in America”:
“At the extreme borders of the Confederate States,” de Tocqueville wrote, “a population of bold adventurers have taken up their abode . . . . [He 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?
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
David F. Forte, Post Office—Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 (Heritage Guide to the Constitution)
Elizabeth Hewitt, Correspondence and American Literature, 1770–1865 (2004)
Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (2005)
Richard R John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (1995)
United States Post Office: Postal History, Benjamin Franklin: Postmaster General, July 26, 1775 to November 1776 (U.S.P.S. website)
Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003)