“As radical an experiment as America itself, the post was the incubator of our uniquely lively disputatious culture of innovative ideas and uncensored opinions. With astonishing speed, it established the United States as the world’s information and communications super power.”
In 1774, an enterprising revolutionary called William Goddard established the Constitutional Post, a service that illegally competed with the Crown mail, and provided the movement for American independence with a secure means to transport mail that would have been considered seditious by the British government. In 1775, the Continental Congress officially adopted the service, with Benjamin Franklin appointed as the first postmaster general, and the post office was born. Author Winifred Gallagher argues that this first institution of the federal government, which predates the Declaration of Independence, was essential to connecting and unifying the disparate colonies, and developing a country with a shared identity, as well as an emphasis on literacy and freedom of information. Gallagher focuses on high level developments and broad social impacts, with occasional anecdotes about the experiences of a few individual postal workers of America’s oldest public service.
I picked up this book as a means to contextualize recent debates about the US postal service in light of increased use of mail in ballots for the 2020 Presidential election, and claims about the nature and duty of the post office under the American constitution. I quickly learned that the exact nature of postal service was contentious even under Crown rule, when there was debate about whether postage constituted a fee for service, or a form of taxation without representation. However, the theme of what exactly the post office should be and do arises throughout the book, faced again in each new era as the post continued to change and evolve. Based on Gallagher’s account, there is far from any historical consensus about whether the post office should support itself, or be able to run a deficit with additional support from tax payers and the Treasury. Both Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and the first postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin, were restrictionists who believed the post should support itself or even turn a profit. Early postal advocate and founding father Benjamin Rush and President George Washington were anti-restrictionists who regarded the circulation of information as essential regardless of the cost. However, the question of funding has been revisited and revised repeatedly over the course of the country’s history, and has to be hashed out again every generation or two.
A theme that arises frequently throughout the first half of the book is the issue of States’ Rights, which is prominent in American history generally, but had a surprising amount of influence on the operation of something as mundane as the post. While most citizens wanted to be connected to the post, and would petition their congressional representatives for service, the establishment of a federal outpost in a community was not necessarily without controversy. Of particular contention were postal roads, which were essential to mail service. The post office was nominally responsible for establishing them, but lacked the authority to actually build roads, a matter which states did not want to cede to the federal government. The post therefore had to work creatively, subsidizing the nascent transportation industry, and encouraging local creation and maintenance of roads in order to have postal service established. This push-pull desire for both the benefits of confederation, and also the independence of statehood seems particularly illustrative of early America, and I learned as much about the country as the post from this book.
Another theme that weaves through Gallagher’s history of the post is the subsidization of the developing transportation industry as the United States grew, and expanded steadily westward, pushing out Native peoples, and swallowing up territories once claimed by other empires. Gallagher spends considerable time on stagecoaches and railroads, as well as the fledgling airline industry, all of which were underwritten by lucrative contracts to carry the mail in addition to their passengers and other freight. In 1857, the federal government offered $600,000 for any company that could carry the mail overland from Mississippi to San Francisco in twenty-five days or less. I was also fascinated to learn that mail was often sorted in transit aboard moving trains in a special post office car, by some of the service’s best clerks, who had to memorize extensive maps and timetables, reroute mail for missed connections on the fly, and sort with extreme precision and speed, all without succumbing to motion sickness.
The latter half of the book is less detailed than the first, and we get a much more cursory account of the post-World War II post office, which was beginning to buckle under the strain of austerity imposed by two wars and a recession. Here Gallagher accounts for how financial constraints and corporate lobbying combined to ensure the post office failed to modernize for the electronic age; whereas it had been on the cutting edge of steam power and aviation, it did not bring the same energy or attention to facsimile, internet, or email, which would have seemed like logical extensions to earlier postmasters general who argued for the involvement of the post in anything that helped connect Americans to information. Instead, the post office came to a point of crisis, and transitioned from being a fully-fledged federal department to being an “independent establishment of the executive branch,” or basically a non-profit business under Richard Nixon.
Although How the Post Office Created America was published in 2016 and could have come quite up to date, I finished with a more historical than current understanding of the USPS, as Gallagher does not get much into modern operations, though she does mention the legislation that financially burdened the post office by requiring it to prefund health benefits for its workers far into the future. I would also have been interested to learn more about the experiences and direct accounts of postal workers, as well as the history of government censorship of the mail, which is only briefly covered through the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Postal Obscenity Act of 1873, better known as the Comstock Law. However, these are perhaps stories for other books, as there is clearly too much rich history here to fit all into one volume. What is entirely clear is the historical importance of the post office in providing equitable access to information for all Americans, regardless of cost, a truly community enterprise that is no less necessary today.
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