- Historic Sites
A Zip Through History
The U.S. Post Office, 1775-1974
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
At the same time the debate, which has never been resolved, became intense in the 1790’s over the problem of whether the post office was a business or a service. Should the profitable areas underwrite the cost of service for a thin population scattered over a vast terrain of mountains, wilderness, rivers, and swamps? Our greatest statesmen—notably Washington and Madison, Calhoun and Clay—have said clearly that the post.office is necessary for an informed citizenry. Most, but not all, postmasters general have said so. Congress has said so but then had second thoughts when it was necessary to pass supplementary appropriations bills to cover deficits; and brave men have flinched at the cost of providing mail service for such outposts of civilization as Weeping Water, Nebraska; Towanda, Kansas; and French Bar, Montana.
Adam Smith and many later economic theorists supported the fiscal principle of the post office as a source of revenue. “The post-office,” Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations , “is properly a mercantile project. The Government advances the expence … and is repaid with a large profit by the duties upon what is carried.” But there were other pressures at work. Congressmen, especially from the newer states, clamored for more post roads in their districts, and the post rider’s portmanteau, stuffed with letters and newspapers, became a visible symbol of national unity. “Let us conquer space,” said Calhoun in 1817; “it is thus that a citizen of the West will read the news of Boston still moist from the press. The mail and the press are the nerves of the body politic.” So Congress authorized the extension of the post roads with enthusiasm, leaving it to the postmaster general to pay for them as best he could.
The theory of political pragmatists that “to the victor belongs the spoils,” while not the invention of Andrew Jackson, was eminently congenial to his conception of politics—a game of rewards for loyalty and punishment for opposition. President Jackson’s postmaster general, John McLean of Ohio, an able administrator, protested that if political action in government employees was wrong, then those who worked for Jackson in the election of 1828 as well as those who had supported John Quincy Adams should be dismissed.
“To this General Jackson at first made no reply,” as Ben: Perley Poore, author and newspaper correspondent, told the story in his Reminiscences , “but rose from his seat, puffing away at his pipe; and after walking up and down the floor two or three times, he stopped in front of his rebellious Postmaster-General, and said, ‘Mr. McLean, will you accept a seat upon the bench of the Supreme Court?’ ” He did, and thus many subordinates in the Post Office Department, including old Revolutionary soldiers, made room for successors with good Jacksonian credentials. A newspaperman who was unceremoniously turned out of his local postmastership wrote: “The editor did not wish that General Jackson should be President; so General Jackson did not choose that the editor should be postmaster. The general succeeded in his wishes and the editor did not, and the account is closed.”
William Henry Harrison, the aging hero of Tippecanoe, in his one month of power before he died in office, tried to stand against the multitude of hungry Whig politicians that swarmed into Washington “with racoon-tails in their hats and packages of recommendations in their pockets,” as Poore described the scene. Whigs and high-toned Federalists, National Republicans and strict constructionists, bank and antibank men—all preached Union for the sake of Union. But what they meant was “for the sake of the office.” From that time on, the Post Office Department was more politicized than any other agency of government. The politicians found that the system provided party workers at government expense. Thus, indirectly, the government underwrote the two-party system, and through the liberal use of the franking privilege the post office carried part of the costs of those in power. This was true of other government agencies, but no other had as many employees as conveniently deployed throughout the nation as the post office. And thus it was that the postmaster general became the President’s arch politician and every crossroads postmaster a postmaster-politician. The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, of which more later, represented a new move on the part of Congress toward breaking up this traditional pattern.
The theme of post-office patronage has enriched our native humor with a memorable comic character—the man in search of a local postmastership. In an imaginary interview with Lincoln as President-elect “at his humstid in Springfield” the humorist Artemus Ward wrote of Lincoln’s parlor being so filled with importunate place-seekers that one patriot from Michigan slid down the chimney into the fireplace, brushed the soot out of his eyes, and yelled: “Don’t make eny pintment at the Spunkville postofiss till you’ve read my papers. All the respectful men in our town is signers to that there dockyment!” In similar vein David Ross Locke created the character of Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, his orthographic atrocities patterned after the style popularized by Ward. Nasby was an illiterate country preacher, both foolish and corrupt, whose prose took the form of “letters” purporting to originate in “Confedrit x Roads wich is in the Stait uv Kentucky.” In one of his communications Nasby has just received what he terms his Reward of Virtue: