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Post Office Essential to Our Country’s Founding
By Bob Levi
Director of Legislative & Political Affairs
Before I begin, I would like to note that, for the first time in more than a decade, the Postal Service Board of Governors has a full complement of nine presidentially nominated members. On May 12, the Senate confirmed the nominations of Daniel Tangherlini and Derek Kan.
On July 4th, our nation celebrated its 246th birthday. Therefore, I would like to explore the role some notable American patriots played in forging our postal system and what shaped their views about the institution.
It is important to note that the chief function of the Colonial postal system was to distribute not only correspondence, but, more consequentially, circulate newspapers. There is a reason why so many of our early postmasters were printers and publishers. Newspapers were the patriotic glue that bound together the 13 colonies.
These first leaders of the postal system were tasked with ensuring that the Post Office was properly funded and provided a secure means of distributing correspondence and political information. Inasmuch as there was no government funding for the postal system, all three postmasters general were challenged to run a profit-making postal operation that financed a communication network for early Americans; sound vaguely familiar?
When the Constitutional Convention of 1787 convened, delegates yearned for a more established postal operation that was part of a federal government. The convention strongly believed that unimpeded distribution of news should be a core government function and, thus, explicitly provided Congress with the authority “to establish post offices and post roads.”
Ratification of the Constitution was not a slam-dunk. Some American patriots viewed the Constitution’s sanction of a strong federal government as a direct attack on state autonomy. Critics believed creating a strong executive branch was an attempt to create an American-cultivated monarchy. Supporters of the Constitution were referred to as “Federalists;” those opposed were known as “anti-Federalists.”
The Federalist Papers, a collection of articles and essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, made an unassailable case for ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The audience was the American public and the vehicle for public debate was newspapers.
Then-Postmaster General Hazard was a passionate Federalist and supported ratification. In the heat of the era, Hazard apparently attempted to stifle debate by changing the way in which the Post Office conveyed newspapers. Under existing postal rules, newspapers were “exchanged” among the cities along the postal routes. For example, Boston papers were exchanged with Philadelphia and New York papers.
Post riders carried correspondence for a fee, but carried newspapers to be exchanged and papers for subscribers at no cost. This established exchange and informal public subsidy arrangement promoted sharing news and fostered political debate throughout the young nation. The Continental Congress sought to formalize this arrangement.
However, during the ratification debate over the Constitution, news and arguments critical of ratification went dark. The news eclipse occurred when Hazard changed the postal rules. One of his revisions allowed post riders to disregard newspapers. Post riders were empowered with this discretion because Hazard’s postal plan reduced mail capacity.
In part, Hazard “reformed” the way in which mail transited along postal roads. He replaced large-capacity stagecoaches with limited-capacity post riders. Hazard argued that post riders were faster and cheaper. However, the plan did not go well. The routes suffered significant service interruptions, possibly as the result of inadequate rider availability. Moreover, post riders carried less mail than a coach. Therefore, the Post Office needed more riders.
Finally, accessibility to newspapers—the fuel for public discourse—was undermined due to the lack of mail capacity and rider discretion. Consequently, free and open debate over the Constitution among the American public was handicapped.
George Washington was distressed by Hazard’s actions. Historians note that although Washington had an intense and personal interest in ratification, he fervently opposed limiting debate on the issue. He also thought that postal censorship could jeopardize ratification. Finally, he believed that entangling the Post Office with partisanship would reduce political engagement and delegitimize the republic.
Washington’s outrage with Hazard was abundantly clear when, after he was elected America’s first president in 1789, Washington reappointed all existing federal officials with the exception of Hazard. Consequently, Samuel Osgood was the first presidentially appointed postmaster general.
On a side note, it appears that Alexander Hamilton, as President Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, sought to offset Revolutionary War debt with postage-stamp revenue. Despite the Constitution’s delegating to Congress the authority to “establish post offices and post roads,” Hamilton had a strong interest in running postal operations out of the Treasury Department.
Ironically, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson wanted to run the Post Office out of the State Department. Postal operations and revenue were so important that two of America’s Founding Fathers clashed over its authority. In 1792, Congress and Washington settled the skirmish by signing into law the Postal Service Act of 1792, which established the U.S. Post Office as a cabinet department led by the postmaster general.
While the Post Office has not been a cabinet-level agency for the past 51 years, many of the same discussions about the appropriate role of the Postal Service and its operations date back to the founding of our nation. The debate continues.