Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Moving the Mail in the U.S

A Colonial rider on the Old Post Road makes a delivery in a village along his route.

Postal service in America can point to various birthdates and milestones, but on February 20, 1792 President George Washington signed into law the legislation that created Post Office Department.  That regularized the new Constitutional Federal Government’s already loosely organized postal service and elevated the Post Master General to cabinet rank.
Benjamin Franklin, as he was so many other instances, was key in developing a Colonial postal system beginning in 1737 as postmaster in Philadelphia.  He did such a good job in organizing mail services in Pennsylvania’s principle city and his political connections were so good that he became joint postmaster general for all of the British Colonies in 1753.  This was a lucrative political plum—his remuneration came partly from a cut of postal fees.  It also gave him an edge in circulating his newspaper, almanac, and other products of his printing business.
But Franklin threw himself into organizing a haphazard postal system that barely operated between many cities.  He oversaw surveying and marking regular routes from Massachusetts’ northern settlements in what is now Maine to Georgia.  The Old Post Road, stitched together from local roads followed the route that became U.S. Highway 1.  Using relay riders he established overnight service between Philadelphia and New York and between New York and Boston.  And he worked out standardized postage rates based on weight and distance. 

Benjamin Franklin kept his lucrative post as Colonial Post Master General even during his long residence in London as a Colonial agent.  This portrait was done shortly after his arival in England in 1757
By the time Franklin departed for London in 1757 for his long residency there as Colonial Agent for Pennsylvania and subsequently other colonies, the postal service was well established and functioning.  He kept his appointment—and the emoluments that went with it—while others managed its day to day affairs.  That cozy relationship ended when he was ousted in disgrace for his part in intercepting and sending to Boston for publication embarrassing letters of Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson urging the Crown to crack down on obstreperous Bostonians in 1773.
When Franklin finally returned in 1775 he found the Colonies in an uproar and his postal system rusty and disrupted by political tensions.  By the time he made his way to Philadelphia in May of that year, fighting had already broken out at Lexington and Concord and a hastily assembled militia army was laying siege to British occupied Boston.  Franklin was quickly appointed a delegate to the Second Constitutional Convention.
Meanwhile another Philadelphia printer and newspaper publisher, William Goddard vexed by disruptions in circulating his Pennsylvania Chronicle, drew up a detailed proposal for the Colonies’ own Continental Post and laid it before Congress on October 5, 1774.   When Franklin took his seat he enthusiastically endorsed the plan.  With the outbreak of war, Congress turned almost immediately to the Post plan—really its first important piece of business not directly tied to the war. 
The interest was understandable.  After all, the new nation owed its existence to the Patriots’ Committees of Correspondence which both spread vital news but also fostered some cooperation between the Colonies in opposing British taxation and punitive measures.  And while each Colony still viewed itself as an independent sovereign state only loosely allied and sectional differences put a strain on even that relationship, postal service was the fragile link that stitched them together.
On July 26, 1775 Congress adopted the Goddard plan and naturally appointed Franklin as its first Postmaster General.  He did not serve long before he departed to Paris to take up new duties as Minister to France.  But Franklin made sure that the job went to his son in law Richard Bache in November, 1775.
Through the inevitable disruptions of the Revolution and under the barely functional Articles of Confederation, postal service limped along and actually deteriorated.  It was unreliable outside a narrow coastal strip and virtually non-existent in frontier settlements.  When Washington took office in the temporary capitol in New York, Samuel Osgood served as Post Master General overseeing the rag-tag service he had inherited from the Confederation government.
When the Capital moved to Philadelphia Timothy Pickering, a Revolutionary War veteran and rising political star, assumed the job.  With the establishment of the Post Office Department, he was officially elevated to the Cabinet joining the Secretaries of the Treasury, State, and War, and the Attorney General.  He became a staunch ally of Alexander Hamilton in the growing rift with Thomas Jefferson.
Pickering served as Postmaster General under Washington until 1795 when he was briefly made Secretary of War and then Secretary of State replacing Jefferson.  He continued in that role under John Adams until being dismissed for his vocal opposition to the President’s policy of negotiating an end to the Naval Quasi-War with France.
One of the primary duties of early Postmasters General was recommending local postmaster appointments.  Under Washington these were generally deferred to the recommendations of local officials and dignitaries generally regardless of political opinions, although the Old General often showed favoritism to veterans, especially his former officers.  This was in keeping with Washington’s opposition to faction.  But as tensions rose between Hamilton and Jefferson and their supporters, Hamilton’s ally Pickering began to screen political opinions.
This took greater hold under John Adams after the emergence of the Federalists, Democratic-Republicans and the two party system.  Although incumbents were rarely turned out unless they were particularly noisy or an important local Federalist wanted the job, new appointments were reliable Federalists.  When Thomas Jefferson triumphed in the Revolution of 1800, he likewise rewarded loyal Republicans although he also refrained from wholesale replacement.
The growing young nation required hundreds and then thousands of local postmasters for the expanding system.  It was the largest domestic undertaking of the Federal Government, outstripping the skeletal military establishment, customs collection, land sales offices, and the rudimentary Federal court system.  Appointments were coveted because duties were not onerous for the largely part time positions and there was a steady, if unspectacular income from collecting postage fees—then customarily from the recipient. 
More importantly most postmasters set up their operations in the stores, taverns, and inns that they operated as their primary businesses.  Since there was no home or business delivery, mail had to be picked up in the local post offices, located in these businesses in all but the largest cities.  That made the postmasters’ establishments natural community centers which attracted customers and loafers alike.  They were places where politics was always a hot topic of discussion.  It was profitable both for the postmasters and for the political parties that sponsored them.
In addition as postal services grew there were more postal employeescouriers, clerks, and such each and every one of which was a job filled by Presidential appointment.  And there were contracts for carrying the mail to be allotted to stage coach lines, river boats, coastal packets, and eventually railroads and each contract was an opportunity to reward faithful party supporters.   Patronage for the administration in all of its forms became the engine that drove the post office.  Postmasters General became the chief political operative in the cabinet and the President’s ties to his party.  He could award jobs by proxy to local party bosses to shore up support and prevent defections to potential challengers in the President’s own party—a big   advantage for unpopular chief executives.
From 1800 on all of those advantages fell pretty much entirely to the Republicans, as the Jeffersonians became known during the so-called Era of Good Feelings while the Federalists winked out as a political force.  But with the election of John Quincy Adams as a National Republican against a split field led by Andrew Jackson running as an old conservative, that began to change.  Jackson was defeated in 1828 but came roaring back to win a historic victory in 1832 at the head of the re-named Democratic Party

This anti-Jackson cartoon lamented the spoils system which made the Post Office a political plumb.
Jackson ran as the popular candidate of the common man.  One of the explicit points of his platform was instituting the spoils system—“to the victor belong the spoils,” He declared.  He painted this as a democratic reform to replace all of the stuffed shirts and little plutocrats employed by that “haughty aristocrat” Adams.  True to his word, Jackson was no sooner in office than he went to work cleaning house in the Post Office from top to bottom replacing postmasters and clerks with loyal Democrats no matter how rustic.  In doing so he also unleashed the hordes of office seekers who would mob the halls of the Executive Mansion and pester presidents for decades to come.
Young Abraham Lincoln was appointed Post Master of New Salem, Illinois under a Whig administration and operated out of his small grocery store until it failed.
When it came their turns, Whigs and Republicans played the game with same fervor as the Democrats and the post-Civil War Republicans got it down to a machine like science.
Despite this, the Post Office matured and grew with country adding innovations that constantly improved and expanded service—adhesive postage stamps, home delivery in urban areas, eventually Rural Free Delivery as well,  the transportation of vast quantities of mail by rail, and the introduction postal sorting on the fly in specialized mail cars.  In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries the remarkable efficiency of the U.S. Post Office was the envy of the world.

Rural Free Delivery (RFD) was a boon to countryside residents and voters did not forget that it was a Republican administration that provided it
Political patronage and the spoils system became central political issues of the Gilded Age.  After fits and starts Civil Service Reform made most Post Office and other low-level Federal jobs merit positions to be filled by qualified applicants who could pass competitive examinations.  But local postmasters and higher level managers and executives remained political appointees.  The game was changed, not eliminated. 

Urban mail men like these in the 1890s carried not only letters and publications in their pushcarts but all sorts of packages and other items directly to homes and buisnesses.
In keeping with the tradition of highly political Postmasters General, for instance, Franklin D,  Roosevelt tapped the political operative most responsible for his rise in New York Democratic circles and securing the presidential nomination in 1932—James A. Farley.
The Post Office adapted to the post-World War II America with great success.  It employed tens of thousands of veterans who got additional points were added to their civil service examinations.  It also became truly integrated even in the Jim Crowe South and lifted many Blacks and other minorities into the middle class.  It adapted air mail to the jet age, eventually eliminating it as a separate mail class and moving most Frist Class Mail where possible by air.  The introduction of the Zip Code and automated sorting sped the mails and kept down postage
Then the Post Office Department was reformed right out of existence under President Richard Nixon in 1971 and reborn as the United States Postal Service, a quasi-public corporation run by a Board of Governors but answerable to Congress.  The Postmaster General vanished from the Cabinet.  The new corporation was charged with running like a business and expected to turn a profit.  That was made difficult by a number of restrictions placed on it by Congress and then made impossible when the USPS was mandated to fully fund pensions decades into the future, huge payments that make it impossible to report a profit and has allowed rightwing ideologues in Congress to declare it a failure and push for massive service cuts, continuing steep annual postage rate hikes, and eventually its complete replacement by competing private companies like Federal Express and UPS

Letter carriers return to work after a 1971 Postal Strike that gave Richard Nixon leverage to dump the Post Office Department and replace it with a quasi-public corporation meant to run like a buisness and turn a profit.
Under this pressure service has suffered and employee moral destroyed by speed up schemes, doubled workloads, and an intentionally harsh and repressive management style.  American mail service now lags far behind that in other developed industrial countries.  If it fails and is replaced by private industry expect home delivery to be cut back to once a week.   Thousands of local post offices will be closed and the private companies will have no obligation to serve small and isolated communities at all just as unregulated rail and bus services have left such places.
After all in the coming Randian Libertarian utopia the Republicans promise us private profit is everything and any losers get exactly what is coming to them at the hands of their betters.  Why to embrace the idea of postal service as a public utility operating for the common social good would be damn socialism!  Just what old Ben Franklin and George Washington had in mind.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Book that Changed America and the Damn Pushy Woman Who Wrote It

Betty Fridanon book tour to promothe The Feminine Mystique. 

On February 19, 1963 W.W. Norton and Company issued Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.   That book, along with the nearly contemporaneous arrival of the Pill as a reliable and affordable form of contraception, ushered in the social and political movement sometimes called the Second Wave of Feminism.
With astonishing speed—less than a decade—that movement would embrace and personally empower millions of women with local level consciousness raising groups, sophisticated national organizations, political operations, and a network of publications.  Long held assumptions about home, family, work, and other issues would be turned on their heads.  It was in a real sense a revolution.
56 years later the spasmodic eruption of the extreme right wing in this country, empowered by the election of Republicans to national and state level legislative power and Donald Trump to his golden toilet throne  has turned its attention to undoing that revolution.  That is what the current uproar over contraception and abortion is really all about—attacking the gains women felt so confident in that they thought they could never be challenged again.  About 35% of the American population wants to turn back the clock to what they imagine was a safer world where everyone knew their place and “morals” ruled.  They want to recreate the very environment that Friedan rebelled against.
Friedan was born Bettye Naomi Goldstein in 1921 to a Jewish family in overwhelmingly Goyish Peoria, Illinois.  Her father owned a local jewelry store and her mother wrote society news for the local newspaper—until she was forced to give up her career after marriage, something she urged her daughter never to do.
Growing up in the Depression years, she became inflamed with a passion for social justice.  She also acutely felt the sting of common anti-Semitism.  She developed an interest in Marxism while still in high school, which may have been why, despite being a regular contributor to the school paper, she was turned down for a spot as a columnist.
In 1938 her family found enough money to send her to prestigious Smith College, one of the Seven Sister Schools to the then all-male Ivy League.  Excelling academically, she won a scholarship to continue her education, pursuing a degree in psychology.  She also continued writing, including placing several poems in the campus literary magazine and rising to editor of the newspaper in 1941.  Under her leadership, the paper took a sharply political and leftist tone.

Young Betty Friedan looking every inch the young Marxist.
After graduating with honors in 1942, she went to the University of California at Berkley on a Fellowship.  She plunged into radical political activity there as well.  But in 1943 she abandoned her academic aspirations at the urging of her then boyfriend.
After leaving school she went to work as a journalist for left wing and labor outlets, first  The Federated Press and then beginning in  1945,  the United Electrical Workers UE News.
While working at the UE News, she married advertising executive Carl Friedan in 1947.  As she continued her career the couple would have three children and move to a comfortable suburban life.  Ironically, here union employers forced her out in 1953 after the birth of her second daughter.
Friedan then turned to freelance writing, often contributing to mainstream women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan.
In 1957 Friedan was asked to write an article on what happened to members of her graduating class for their 15th reunion.  She sent questionnaires to as many as she could find and received over two hundred replies.  Most of her classmates, it turned out, had abandoned careers to raise families.  And they were miserable and unfulfilled.  Intrigued by what she called the problem that has no name, she embarked on further research and study.
When the women’s magazines to which she regularly contributed all rejected an article on the subject, Friedan was furious and went to work expanding the article into a book. 
Among other things, she came to the conclusion that popular women’s magazines and cultural in general had abandoned independence as a goal for women and pushed the ideal of finding fulfillment in marriage and family life.  When the nuclear family could not fulfill women and when they lost their identity and sense of self, women became conflicted, guilt ridden, and neurotic.
Friedan advocated for women to pursue careers either in lieu of marriage and traditional family life or within a re-defined marriage of equals.  She outlined the cultural, political, and economic barriers to fulfillment and advocated action to tear them down.
The result was The Feminine Mystique.  It created an immediate sensation, zoomed to the top of the non-fiction best seller list and stayed there for months.  Its notoriety was stoked by the shocked and horrified response of many, mostly male, reviewers and the press in general. 

The Feminine Mistique was already a run-awy best seller but when it hit the drug store paperback racks later in 1963 it became accesible to students, moms, and struggling young working women.
But women, especially middle class women, responded urgently to the books message.  They began meeting in living rooms, libraries, church basements, and coffee shops in small groups to compare their own experiences creating a boom in consciousness raising groups that gave women the support of their sisters and empowered them to act.
A sudden celebrity, Friedan found herself anointed de facto the leader of a new movement.  In 1966 she helped make that status official by being among the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which quickly gave political muscle to the new movement.  She was elected NOW’s first President and launched their first major initiative—a push to revive the moribund Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution and get it ratified by the States.

Friedan on an early NOW picket line.
She served NOW as President until 1970 and then went on to lead the national Women’s Strike for Equality, and led a march of 50,000 women in New York City.  The next year she teamed with her sometimes bitter rival for leadership of the movement, Gloria Steinem, to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Friedan was also a founder of the organization that became the National Abortion Rights Action League.  Despite this she later regretted the emphasis on abortion and sexual rights, believing that the core of the women’s struggle was economic opportunity.  She was also uncomfortable with the rising visibility and importance of lesbians in the movement, although over time her notorious iciness to them softened and became more accepting.

Leading an ERA march in Washington onJuly 9, 1978.  From left: Gloria Steinem, Dick Gregory, Betty Friedan, Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, D-N.Y., Rep. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Rep. Margaret Heckler, R-Mass. 
Friedan was not without critics—and not all of them were enemies of the women’s movement.  She was abrasive, often angry, and hard to work with for associates.  She demanded deference to her position as an indispensable founder.  Beyond personality, some critics of her landmark first book took her to task for writing only for highly educated women in the solid middle class.  Indeed they were the focus of The Feminine Mystique and the backbone of the early movement.  Non-whites and working class women—women who had always worked to support their families and had jobs instead of careers—were at best the subject of benign neglect.
Friedan, originally a socialist and labor person, seemed to have forgotten some of her own experiences.  But she firmly believed that the ERA and reforms like insuring equal pay would raise all boats and elevate the status of pink collar workers along with educated professionals.
But the seeming disdain of the early movement for working class women, and the perceived antagonism to women who chose a traditional family role, quickly became the nucleus around which the rising right wing movement of the late 20st and early 21st Century spun its fantasy of snobbish elites turning class resentments against feminists and other progressives. 

Friedan remained adamant and defiant to the end of her long life.
Friedan continued writing, speaking and organizing almost to the moment of her death.  She never mellowed. She died on her 85th birthday, February 4, 2006.  She left behind three children—and the Women’s Movement.