|19th Century Version of the Seal of the Post Office Department featuring a Post Rider.|
Postal service in America can point to various birthdates and milestones, but on February 20, 1792 when 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 the 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 Florida. 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 posed for this early portrait in London in 1757 while he was still Postmaster General of the Colonies.|
By the time Franklin departed for London in 1857 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 postmaster set up their operations in the store, 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 employees—couriers, 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.
|Andrew Jackson's enemies did not share his enthusiasm for the Spoils System.|
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—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 mobs of office seekers who would mob the halls of the Executive Mansion and pester presidents for decades to come.
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 to remarkable efficiency of the U.S. Post Office was the envy.
|Urban Postal workers in the late 19th century used push carts like these to deliver not just letters and magazines, but all manner of goods and packages.|
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.
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 was reformed right out of existence under President Richard Nixon in 1971 and reborn as the United States Postal Service 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 decade 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.
|After a crippling Postal Strike in 1970, Congress and the Nixon administration responded with the creation of the quasi-public corporation charged with operating for a profit, Postal service has steadily declined.|
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.