Post Roads

views updated May 23 2018

Post Roads


Post Office Act . The Constitution gave Congress the power to establish not only post offices but post roads as well. With the Post Office Act of 1792 Congress created the U.S. Post Office, and it did so on three fundamental principles. First, the Post Office would be self-supporting. It would not rely on government subsidies, but would have to generate sufficient income to cover its expenses. Second, if the Post Office generated a surplus, it would invest it in improved service: in other words, it would not keep its profits. Finally, Congress, not the postmaster general, would decide where to put post roads.

English Model . In England the postmaster general decided where to put post roads. Some members of Congress saw no reason to change the customary practice, while others did not think it would be constitutional to delegate this power to an executive officer. In addition to being unconstitutional, many thought it would be unwise. It might work in England, some congressmen said, but English examples would not work in America. Giving this power to the postmaster general might lead to monarchy, as the executive branch could control the flow of information. Congress decided not to delegate its power, but to keep control of locating post roads.

Purpose . The debate over post roads had profound political importance. If the Post Offices task was to facilitate communications for the government, and to deliver federal revenue from distant places (since virtually all federal income came from tariffs, it was being collected in port cities such as Charleston, Salem, and Boston, and then had to be delivered to the capital), it made sense to have post roads linking coastal cities. But in Congress representatives from the interior areas objected to this route. John Steele, a congressman from North Carolina, insisted that the Post Office serve a majority of the people, not just the seaboard merchants. Steele, who later served as comptroller of the U.S. Treasury, recognized the importance of the post office to deliver revenue. But more important was its function in serving the general public.

Routes . By keeping control over the post roads, Congress ensured that the Post Office would respond to the American people rather than serving the government or the business community alone. By 1800 Congress had designated 20, 000 miles of post roads. The Post Office was delivering mail as far west as Natchez, Mississippi, and Vin-cennes, Indiana. By the time of the War of 1812, the United States had 39, 378 miles of post roads and more than twenty-six hundred post offices. By 1820 Congress had designated 72, 492 miles of postal routes linking forty-five hundred post offices.


Wayne E. Fuller, The American Mail: Enlarger of the Common Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972);

Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995).

Post Roads

views updated Jun 11 2018


POST ROADS. Mail routes between New York and Boston took shape in the late seventeenth century. These roads traced routes that became great highways and are still known as the post roads. The Continental Congress began creating post roads during the revolutionary war. To designate a highway as a post road gave the government the monopoly of carrying mail over it; on other roads, anybody might carry the mail. At first the mail was conveyed on horseback. Later, stagecoaches carried both mail and passengers; the inns that served them became noted and prosperous hostelries. In 1787 connecting stretches of road reaching as far north as Portsmouth and Concord, N.H., as far south as Augusta, Ga., and as far west as Pittsburgh, Penn., were declared post roads. Between 1790 and 1829 successive acts of Congress increased the post-road mileage from 1,875 to 114,780. Steamboat captains also carried letters and collected the fees for them, until in 1823 all navigable waters were declared to be post roads, which checked the practice. Private letter-carrying companies after 1842 did much house-to-house mail business in the larger cities; but the postmaster general circumvented them in 1860 by declaring all the streets of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia to be post roads. The Rural Post Roads Act of 1916 provided federal aid to the states for the construction of rural post roads. The term "rural post road" was construed, with certain limitations, to mean any public road over which the U.S. mails were then, or thereafter might be, transported.


John, Richard R. Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Alvin F.Harlow/a. r.

See alsoPostal Service, United States ; Rural Free Delivery ; Stagecoach Travel ; Taverns and Saloons .