Every country has mail, but only in America is the daily mail part ritual, part Constitutional mandate.
Editor's Note: Bruce Watson is a writer, historian, and contributing editor at American Heritage. You can read more of his work on his blog, The Attic.
SUPAI VILLAGE, ARIZONA — Deep in the bowels of the biggest canyon on earth, six days a week, with neither rain nor heat nor dead of night to stop it, the U.S. Mail arrives. Each delivery includes letters, junk mail, plus boxes of frozen meat, milk, fresh vegetables, and packages from Amazon.
Located eight miles from the nearest road, Supai Village is, according to the US Department of Agriculture, “the most remote community in America.” Just 207 members of the Havasupai Nation live here. There are no paved streets or streetlights. Nothing but a lodge, a cafe, and a convenience store serving Grand Canyon hikers. But there is also U.S. Mail Delivery Zone. And day after day, at just about noon, the mail arrives — by mule.
Every country has mail, but only in America is the daily mail part ritual, part Constitutional mandate. The U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 7 empowers Congress “to establish Post Offices and Post Roads.” And since 1775, when Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin set the service in motion, some 200 laws have protected the mail and its carriers. Fed Ex and UPS and Amazon now deliver packages and “urgent letters,” but their carriers can’t touch your mailbox. It’s federal property.
We love to bash our government. That $#$@% Congress, that stupid V.A., that lame FCC. Yet the United States Postal Service has an approval rating of 84 percent. Perhaps that’s because, although most government agencies hunker down in D.C., the mail hits you where you live. From Zip Codes 00501 (Holtville, NY) to 99950 (Ketchikan, AK), from tiny towns far from anywhere to major cities everywhere, there’s a post office. And if there isn’t one near you, Rural Federal Delivery brings mail to your door. Like the folks in Supai Village, rural America depends on RFD for medicine, Social Security checks, mail order groceries and more. One Montana carrier drives 191 miles a day to reach just 272 mailboxes. Now that’s service.
For 55 cents — what else will 55 cents buy? — you can mail a first class letter from any of 30,825 post offices to any other P.O. Eighty percent of letters arrive within two days. Isn’t it time we celebrate the USPS?
Numbers suggest the thankless job done by 600,000 USPS employees. Last year the postal service delivered 150 billion items to 160 million addresses. First-class mail peaked in 2001 but package deliveries have since doubled. Last holiday season, the USPS stitched American families together, delivering 800 million packages.
You may not know your friendly mailman — or woman — the way your grandparents did when carriers walked their routes. But the post office has employed some knowable Americans. Among its local postmasters were Harry Truman, William Faulkner, Adlai Stevenson, and Abraham Lincoln. Former mail carriers include Bing Crosby, Steve Carrell, John Prine, Walt Disney, Rock Hudson, and Charles Lindbergh who flew air mail before flying the Atlantic.
But our mail faces problems bigger than rain or snow or dead of night. Since the 1990s, the USPS has battled funding shortages, corporate competitors, and that scourge of modern messaging — e-mail. Struggling to make “the swift completion of its appointed rounds,” the USPS frequently butts heads with our $#$@% Congress.
In 2011, when the USPS proposed closing 3,700 remote post offices, Congress banned the closing of any P.O. farther than 10 miles from any other. In 2013, when the USPS proposed delivering just packages and Priority Mail on Saturdays, Congress again said no. We want our mail. We want it today.
We also want our stamps. Hardly a writer, artist, or musician, barely a historical event or milestone has not been enshrined on its own stamp. From Mister Rogers to Woodstock, from Hip-Hop Culture to Bugs Bunny, you can find America — Forever — on its stamps.
So what’s all this brouhaha about the mail? Many worry the USPS can’t handle the 80 million mail-in ballots expected this November. But when the current administration (ahem!) proposed cutbacks, the outcry could be heard from the northernmost P.O., 350 miles above the Arctic Circle, to the southernmost in Key West, FL. The uproar was also heard in DC where some of the “cost-cutting” measures (ahem!) were rescinded. This weekend, Congress was called back from summer recess just to make sure the USPS could do its thankless job.
Again this week, in 105 degree noontime temperatures, the mail arrived at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Trudging into Supai Village, each mule carried 200 pounds — letters, Amazon packages, food and milk and eggs. But like all daily deliveries, the mail arrived less by mule or human carrier than by sheer will, by Constitutional decree, by the design of the Founders. And the mail will keep arriving, because as America Online knew, every American perks up at the simple news — “You’ve got mail!”