"Among the improvements in the United States, there is, perhaps, no one that has advanced more rapidly, or proved more extensively useful, than that of the transportation of the mail." So wrote a contributor in 1810 to the Port Folio, a Philadelphia-based literary magazine. Elaborating on his claim, the essayist credited the Post Office Department with an indispensable role in the creation of a geographically extensive public sphere. "In point of public utility, it holds a rank but little inferior to printing. Copies may be multiplied at the press, but, without this establishment, how limited must be their distribution!"
The essayist's observations highlighted a dimension of public life in the United States during the early Republic that is sometimes overlooked. In the decades following the adoption of the federal Constitution, the United States underwent a communications revolution that had enduring consequences for American public and private life. This revolution was predicated on the elaboration of the long-distance information infrastructure: the postal system, the stagecoach industry, and the periodical press. It was fostered by innovative legislation that included the Copyright Act of 1790, the free press guarantees in the federal and state constitutions, and the federal Land Ordinance of 1785. And it was set in motion by the Post Office Act of 1792, a landmark in American communications policy and one of the most far-reaching pieces of federal legislation to have been enacted in the half-century following the adoption of the federal Constitution.
growth of the post office
In 1788 the Post Office Department boasted a mere sixty-nine offices, only two more than the sixty-seven offices maintained by the royal postal system in 1765. Most were located in a single seaboard chain on what is today the "Old Post Road," just as they had been prior to the break with the crown. No periodical received a government subsidy and few circulated in the mail. Although postal administrators sometimes permitted printers to trade copies of their newspapers, this practice was merely customary and lacked the force of law. The Post Office Department, as one postal administrator explained in 1788, had been established by Congress "for the purpose of facilitating commercial correspondence," and, as such, had, "properly speaking, no connection with the press."
In the great constitutional debates (1787–1788), few contemporaries regarded the limited character of long-distance communications as a major problem. James Madison articulated the conventional wisdom when, in his Federalist essays, he presumed that ordinary Americans would receive the bulk of their information about public affairs when their representatives returned to their home districts to meet constituents face-to-face. In Federalist 10, Madison went so far as to hail poor long-distance communications as a safeguard for minority rights. The enormous geographical extent of the country, he conjectured, prevented majoritarian factions from organizing across state boundaries to tyrannize the few.
Madison took for granted the limited facilities for long-distance communications then in existence. At that time, ordinary Americans living far from Philadelphia learned only sporadically about the activities of their congressional delegates. When information did arrive, it often came courtesy of individual delegates, who had the right to transmit or "frank" through the mail an unlimited number of items, making them de facto news brokers for the public.
The only public figure in the 1780s to propose a significant augmentation in the facilities for long-distance communications was the physician Benjamin Rush. To adapt the "principles, morals, and manners of our citizens to our republican form of government," Rush proclaimed in a widely circulated essay published shortly before the Constitutional Convention, it was "absolutely necessary" that the government circulate "knowledge of every kind … through every part of the United States." Rush hailed the Post Office Department as the "true non-electric wire of government" and the "only means" of "conveying light and heat to every individual in the federal commonwealth."
With the passage of the Post Office Act of 1792, Rush's vision acquired a legal imprimatur. To expand access to information on public affairs, Congress admitted every newspaper into the mail at extremely low rates. To ensure that the news was broadcast far and wide, it established an administrative mechanism that guaranteed the rapid extension of the postal network into the hinterland. And to safeguard the sanctity of personal correspondence, it proscribed its surveillance by postal administrators, ending a practice that remained common in Great Britain and France.
No issue proved more contentious than the designation of new post routes. Some wanted to retain this power in the executive, others to shift it to Congress. In the end, proponents of congressional control prevailed. By retaining control, Congress established a legislatively mandated entitlement that was broadly egalitarian and easily adjusted to keep pace with the expansion in the area of settlement. From 1792 onward, popular pressure ensured the expansion of the postal network well in advance of commercial demand. No single piece of legislation did more to create a geographically extensive public sphere.
the proliferation of printed matter
Government newspaper subsidies gave printers ample reason to increase their supply. By 1794 newspapers made up fully 70 percent of the weight of the mail, while generating a mere 3 percent of postal revenue. By 1832 newspapers accounted for an astonishing 95 percent of the weight of the mail, but only 15 percent of postal revenue. Without this substantial federal subsidy for the press, the United States could not have emerged in the early Republic as the leading publisher of newspapers in the world. Federal postal policy was particularly instrumental in spurring the rise of the rural or "country" press, which had been virtually nonexistent before 1792.
After 1794 magazines enjoyed an analogous subsidy and received a parallel boost. By the 1830s postal patrons enjoyed a wide range of reading matter that ranged from learned essays in the North American Review to fashion tips in the Lady's Book. Writers of imaginative fiction like Edgar Allan Poe, Catherine Sedgwick, and Nathaniel Hawthorne took advantage of this new literary venue to invent the modern short story. Though fiction-writers preferred to publish books, the steady influx of British imports reduced their marketability in urban centers, as did the proscription of books from the mail in the hinterland. Not until 1851, after the coming of the railroad, was this ban relaxed.
Federal postal policy also encouraged the proliferation of pamphlets, congressional speeches, and government reports. In any given year, public documents constituted approximately one quarter of all the imprints published in the United States. During presidential campaigns, electioneering tracts made up a substantial fraction of the total weight of the mail.
The only form of literary production that postal policy discouraged was letter-writing. The cost of postage on a single letter, which was customarily paid by the recipient, could easily total 50 cents, a substantial sum at a time when a laborer might make one dollar a day. Prior to the 1830s, the high cost of letter postage troubled few Americans, since correspondents (the vast majority of whom were merchants) were presumed to be able to cover the cost. Personal correspondence, of course, was by no means unknown. As one country curate noted in 1820, "a few days carries a communication with mathematical certainty from one point of the Union to the other. Distance is thus reduced to contiguity; and the ink is scarcely dry, or the wax cold on the paper, before we find in our hands, even at a distance of hundreds of miles, a transcript of our dearest friend's mind." Judging by lists of unclaimed mail that newspapers routinely ran, women posted as many as 20 percent of all the letters in the mail. Yet if an ordinary American received anything in the mail in the period between 1792 and 1840, it was more likely to have been a newspaper than a letter.
Just as postal policy favored certain literary forms, and not others, so too it hastened the creation of a particular kind of informational environment. In 1800 the postal network included 903 offices; in 1810, 2,300; in 1820, 4,500; in 1828, 7,641. The resulting informational environment was more decentralized—and less biased toward major commercial centers—than its counterpart in Great Britain or France. After 1800 the national capital ceased to be a major newspaper-publishing center, a situation inconceivable in Europe. By 1828 the United States had seventy-four post offices for every 100,000 inhabitants, as compared to seventeen in Great Britain and four in France. Even some hinterland congressmen concluded that the postal network was complete. Yet Congress opted not to improve mail delivery in urban centers, which remained rudimentary, but instead to press for even better stagecoach service in the South and West. To boost the stagecoach industry, Congress encouraged the postmaster general to lavish generous contracts on stagecoach proprietors.
Throughout the early Republic, it remained illegal for any public officer to open personal correspondence. (The only exception was undelivered mail, which could be opened by a special class of postal administrators known as dead-letter clerks.) The prohibition on government surveillance extended, at least initially, to newspapers, pamphlets, and magazines. Had Congress found it possible in 1798 to enlist government functionaries to police the mailbags—a practice common in Europe—it would have had less need to pass a sedition act to check the spread of malicious ideas. Critics of the Alien and Sedition Acts, such as Thomas Jefferson, preferred to leave the regulation of printed matter to the states.
the impact on trade and public life
Nowhere were the implications of the communications revolution more fundamental than in the conduct of American trade. Long before the railroad created a national market for goods, the federal government established a national market for information. To move crops to market, merchants relied on the Post Office Department to transmit orders and even banknotes, all of which went uninsured. The high-speed transmission of market information was such a priority that Congress refused to suspend the transportation of the mail on the Sabbath, or even to permit localities to suspend the opening of the post office on this day, an incursion into local autonomy that troubled many, and that prompted the first large-scale petition effort in American history.
Equally far-reaching were the consequences of the communications revolution for public life. After 1792 the public sphere was no longer limited to the relatively small number of people located close to the seats of power, such as Philadelphia or a New England town; rather, it came to be located in the minds and hearts of millions of people. Party strategists relied on the improved facilities for long-distance communications to build the mass party; Evangelicals established voluntary associations on a nationwide scale. When Madison published his Federalist essays in 1788, public opinion had yet to emerge as a major category in political theory. By the time the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831, it had become a keystone of the new "science of politics" for a democratic age. As Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America (1835; 1840), "there is no French province in which the inhabitants knew each other as well as do the thirteen million men spread over the extent of the United States." This new, disembodied public sphere was dramatized by painters like John Lewis Krimmel, whose Village Tavern (1814) portrayed a crowd awaiting the arrival of the mail at a village post office during the War of 1812.
The principal beneficiaries of this new informational environment were the white men who dominated the electorate. Losers included women, slaves, and free blacks. Discouraged from participating in public affairs, they risked harassment every time they ventured into the post office to pick up their mail. Still, by empowering ordinary white men to join together in countless post offices to discuss public affairs, the federal government had helped establish a national community that a generation of men would fight and die for in the Civil War. Long before the advent of the steam railroad and the electric telegraph, the postal system, the stagecoach industry, and the periodical press had prepared the way for the emergence of the United States, in the twentieth century, as the most powerful media empire in the modern world.
See alsoAlien and Sedition Acts; American Character and Identity; Book Trade; Democratization; Federalist Papers; Fiction; Madison, James; Magazines; Newspapers; Nonfiction Prose; Politics: Political Pamphlets; Press, The; Print Culture; Public Opinion; Religious Publishing; Transportation: Roads and Turnpikes; Women: Writers .
John, Richard R. "American Historians and the Concept of the Communications Revolution." In Information Acumen: The Understanding and Use of Knowledge in Modern Business. Edited by Lisa Bud-Frierman. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Kielbowicz, Richard B. News in the Mail: The Press, Post Office, and Public Information, 1700–1860s. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989.
Pred, Allan R. Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information: The United States System of Cities, 1790–1840. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.
Starr, Paul. The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications. New York: Basic Books, 2004.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 1835, 1840. Edited by J. P. Mayer. Translated by George Lawrence. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969.
Richard R. John
Slow Service. In 1820 a letter sent from Baltimore regularly took three weeks to arrive in Saint Louis by boat and stagecoach while in the more-remote areas of the South “the mails ran seldom, if at all, and stages never.” By 1834 steamboats had cut delivery times substantially, but as one postmaster admitted, “half the intelligence of the country is still carried in saddlebags.” In the more-remote western frontier regions even the saddlebags were occasionally dispensed with. On the route from Green Bay to Chicago, about 250 miles, postal carriers had to walk with “sixty pounds of mail, two sacks of parched corn, and blankets,” along with an Indian guide to keep from getting lost.
High Rates. The nation’s vast distances hindered the efficient distribution of the mail, but high postal rates also cut down on the number of letters ordinary Americans exchanged. Originally organized as a division of the Treasury Department (until 1825), the Post Office was supposed to turn a profit for the government. Newspapers were delivered at reduced rates because of the importance of news for the “informed citizenry” of a self-governing republic, but other postal rates were set quite high: twenty-five cents to send a one-sheet letter more than four hundred miles, fifty cents for two sheets, and so on. To get their money’ worth correspondents took to filling a page horizontally, then turning letters on the side to write another layer on top of the first, and some times even adding a third set of diagonal lines on the same page. To avoid the high fees family members and friends often entrusted their letters to acquaintances traveling in the direction of the letter’s destination. By 1837 the Post Office handled only about two letters per person each year.
Politics. Another problem with the nation’s postal service was its susceptibility to political pressure, as post-masterships represented the primary source of patronage available to the president. In an era before civil service exams each change in party control in the White House could and usually did mean a widespread substitution of postmasters, who numbered seventeen thousand by 1850. Moreover, contracts to move the public mails were supposed to go to the lowest bidder in a competitive bidding process. Not coincidentally, those carrying companies tended to be controlled by adherents to the party in power, and these “party men” often failed to fulfill the requirements of their contracts.
Reform. Internal policy changes and the introduction of the railroad and telegraph changed the Post Office for good starting in the 1830s. By 1832 it took only thirty-six hours for a letter to get from Philadelphia to Boston. By 1840 postal employees were sorting mail between these major urban areas on special mail cars, cutting delivery time even more. At the same time Western cities could expect thrice-weekly deliveries from the East by the late 1830s. Meanwhile, the number of post offices increased rapidly, from three thousand in 1815 to seventeen thousand in 1850 (one for every eleven hundred citizens). The advent of rail service resulted in exponential savings to ordinary customers. Postal rates were reduced in 1846, 1851, and 1855. Prepaid postage stamps were introduced in 1847, and by 1851 a mother in New York could write a letter to her son in the California gold fields and expect to buy only a five-cent stamp to get it there.
THE GREAT POSTAL CAMPAIGN
In May 1835 the American Anti-Slavery Society tried to “sow the good seed of abolition thoroughly over the whole country” by putting its new steam-driven presses into overdrive and flooding the mails with antislavery newspapers and pamphlets calling for the immediate emancipation of all enslaved African Americans. But Southerners were in no mood to accept what they considered this new threat to their way of life. Mobs plundered packets of pamphlets and copies of the society’s newspaper, The Liberator, from the Charleston post office and burned them in the public square. Other cities in the South followed suit. Several Southern legislatures placed bounties on Northern abolitionists, and violence against abolitionists broke out even in the North, where many considered abolitionism a threat to national unity. In October 1835 a mob in Boston seized William Lloyd Garrison (editor of The Liberator ) and proceeded to drag him through the streets.
When the mailings did not stop, President Andrew Jackson, himself a slaveholder and cotton planter, ordered Postmaster General Amos Kendall to do something. At Kendall’s instructions Southern postmasters instantly began cleansing the mail of abolitionist literature. Ironically, it was the suppression of the “great postal campaign” that illustrated how the new communications and transportation technologies could alter how Americans thought about slavery and thus alter the national balance of political power.
Source: James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors; The Abolitionist and American Slavery (New York: Hill & Wang, 1976).
J. A. Cannon
post of·fice • n. 1. the public department or corporation responsible for postal services and (in some countries) telecommunications. ∎ a building where postal business is carried on. 2. a game, played esp. by children, in which imaginary letters are delivered in exchange for kisses.
post office: see postal service.