A Zip Through History

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The union between England and Scotland in 1707 and the growth of the American colonies emphasized the need for a comprehensive postal system throughout the empire, and that same year the British government purchased back Neale’s private monopoly. Parliament reorganized and consolidated the post office in 1711 and established stiff rates for letters, based on distance travelled and number of sheets. (The envelope had not yet been invented; instead the sheets were folded and sealed with wax.) Two sheets meant double postage, and the postmaster held the letter up to a lighted candle to make sure the sender was honest. The Postal Act, a revenue measure designed to help finance the War of the Spanish Succession, caused no great stir in most of British North America except in Virginia, where the House of Burgesses saw the rates as a tax and vigorously raised the constitutional argument of taxation without representation almost fifty years before the Stamp Act controversy. There was, however, more widespread latent hostility. Many subterfuges were practiced. Shipmasters “forgot” to call at the letter offices, and post riders, more interested in the business they could pick up on the side than in expediting the mails, bought and sold along the King’s Highway, performed private commissions, and filled their portmanteaus with money and merchandise.

 

Little happened in the way of increased facilities, innovations, or expanded public use of the postal service for the next forty years. The line of undistinguished postmasters general was at last broken by the appointment in 1753 of Benjamin Franklin jointly with William Hunter, the printer, or as we would say today, publisher, of the Virginia Gazette at Williamsburg. Franklin was experienced. He had already been deputy postmaster at Philadelphia for fifteen years and had acted as comptroller of the colonial posts, visiting and instructing local postmasters along the country’s “great Postal Road” (now part of U.S. Route 1). Franklin wanted the job for the prestige of being an important crown official and because it would help increase the sale of his newspaper and the number of advertisements. He discharged the duties of his office brilliantly despite long absences in London during his incumbency.

Early in 1774 Franklin was dismissed from the British service, ostensibly because of his connection with the exposé of the correspondence of Thomas Hutchinson, royal governor at Boston. The crown post office was already disintegrating. The British had used it to block the efforts of the colonies to act in concert, delaying or destroying newspapers and opening and reading private mail, a form of censorship that the British considered legal. But these actions alienated the business and mercantile classes and contributed heavily to the steady build-up of patriot resentment. Even before Franklin was cashiered, the Committees of Correspondence were using their own express riders for communication, and the Sons of Liberty were retaliating upon the English by stopping the royal mail riders, opening their dispatches, and exhorting the populace to the effect that it was unconstitutional to patronize the king’s post office.

Several proposals were under consideration by 1774 for an independent postal service, notably that of William Goddard, the scrappy, aggressive printer of a Baltimore newspaper that had suffered under the imperial post office. Goddard actually got his private-enterprise system into operation; he called it the constitutional post office. But when the Continental Congress authorized a publicly owned post office on July 26, 1775, it passed over Goddard and named Franklin as the first American postmaster general.

On Christmas Day, 1775. the royal mail closed down because the couriers could no longer maintain the service. A year later Franklin’s connection with the American post office also ceased with his appointment as commissioner to the court of France. His son-in-law, Richard Bache, succeeded him. From Bache’s administration, as one historian has nicely phrased it, “the scramble for postmasterships may be said to date.”

During the Revolution the American post office was a feeble agency, plagued by guerrilla warfare, unreliable personnel, and the problems of a depreciated currency. Service continued through the critical period of the Confederation. In fact, postal principles of great historic importance were established by the Articles of Confederation—that “the united states” had “the sole and exclusive right and power of… establishing and regulating post-offices from one state to another, throughout all the united states, and exacting such postage … as may be requisite to defray the expences of the said office.”

When government under the Constitution began, the American postal system had about seventy-five post offices and 1,875 miles of post roads to serve a population of three million. Stagecoaches were used on the main lines, and men on horseback covered what is now Maine, the South beyond Maryland, and the “cross posts,” i.e., inland branch routes. This system was, in embryo, the postal service of today.