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Going Postal: How The USPS Came To Be

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 27, 2023 3:02 am

Going Postal: How The USPS Came To Be

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 27, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the United States Postal Service was established in 1792. It’s hard to believe that a service that was created over 2 centuries ago, is still used by everyone every day. But what’s even more shocking, is that there was actually a lot of debate about whether there should even be a federal post office in the first place… Here’s Daniel Piazza of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum with the story. 

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Get creative and download it today. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. The United States Postal Service was established in 1792. It's hard to believe that a service that was created over two centuries ago is still used by everyone every day. What's even more shocking is that there was actually a lot of debate about whether there should even be a federal post office in the first place. Here's Daniel Piazza of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum with the story. The post office department was created in 1792 with an act that President Washington signed into law that year, but it had antecedents going back to the early 18th century. The British crown had established a post office in the colonies as early as the reign of Queen Anne.

This was in 1711 and in those days the post office was generally a contract that was farmed out to someone who paid the crown a fixed sum for the right to operate a post office and then got to keep the revenue. So the early colonial postmasters general in America actually bought their jobs. Benjamin Franklin becomes joint postmaster general in 1753 along with William Hunter.

Franklin managed all of the post offices from Maryland north while Hunter was in charge from Virginia to Georgia. We frequently hear about Franklin as being the first postmaster general of the United States, which he was, but it's less well known that he was also the last postmaster general under the British crown and in fact he had a much longer postal career under the British than he ever did under the Americans. The Continental Congress, which formed during the Revolution and was the de facto government of the United States until 1789, formed a separate American post office in 1775 and appointed Franklin as the first postmaster general.

For nearly 20 years the post office had been authorized and reauthorized on a temporary basis, usually only until June of the following year. The founders were uncertain about creating a federal post office because in the years leading up to the Revolution the British post office had been used to spy on them. Loyalist postmasters in America and postal officials in England regularly opened the mail and reported on its contents.

In other words they functioned as spies and so the founders disagreed on whether there should be a standing postal establishment in the new nation that they were setting up and they debated the question for nearly 20 years. In the beginning the post office was a rather small operation. It operated very differently from what we're used to now with basically a post office in every town serving every community.

It was largely along the eastern seaboard from Maine to Georgia and there were only about five or six dozen post offices in the entire country and mail was only carried from post office to post office. No postman came to your house with letters. You had to go to a post office to both send and pick up your mail. You had to just periodically go and inquire whether there was any mail for you and if your mail was sitting there uncalled for for some time the postmaster would actually advertise in the local newspaper.

Sometimes very long lists of people who had letters waiting for them. Letters were not paid for when they were mailed. The recipient paid for the letter and so because there was no home delivery and because the system relied on the individual to come in and look for a letter or respond to an advertisement that there was a letter waiting for them at the post office a fairly large percentage of the mail went undelivered and therefore unpaid. So the post office department transported a lot of mail that it never got paid for. The postal act of 1792 comes about because the question of whether or not to have a permanent post office couldn't really be kicked down the road any further. The constitution of 1789 had authorized the congress to establish a post office and the new Washington administration was in favor of it. One of the main reasons was quite simply the fact that the federal government needed money. The constitution provided very few mechanisms by which the federal government could raise money. Really there were only customs and excise duties and postage rates.

Income tax doesn't come until much much later. There are heavy debts left over from the revolutionary war. The new secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton has a very aggressive plan for paying off that debt to establish the United States national credit and the big factor in that is the excess revenue that's expected to come in from postage rates. Articles and pamphlets of the time regularly referred to postage rates as a tax. They considered it a tax and any misgivings the founders had about how the post office might be misused were ultimately overcome by the fact that the government needed money badly. The post office department as it was set up in 1792 had a dual nature.

It was expected to make money for the federal government to turn a profit that would help retire the revolutionary war debts and certainly not to cost the government anything. That's a goal which it sometimes achieved and sometimes didn't but the expectation was there. But then it was also expected to operate like a public service to contribute to the good of the nation to educate the population through the circulation of literature and news. Both of these expectations were present from the very beginning.

At different times one or the other of them is pushed to the fore or emphasized by the party and political power but the other half of the equation never goes away. In the late 18th and early 19th century the bulk of the mail carried by the post office was not letters or birthday cards from grandma. The bulk of the mail consisted of newspapers. Right in the postal law of 1792 there's a carve-out for newspaper publishers. Very low postage rates are set for the carriage of newspapers and that continued for well over 100 years right through the 19th century. And the reason for this was the idea that the post office should be a public service. What that meant in the early republic was that it should facilitate the spread of news. So publishers were allowed to send their newspapers to each other for free so that articles could circulate and be picked up and republished all over the country. The idea of a virtuous citizenry was accepted at the time which meant in part that citizens in order to participate in government and society needed to be informed.

The post office was the most efficient way that pamphlets, newspapers, political tracts and opinions could be exchanged all over the country. And what an interesting story when we come back more of how the post office came to be here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith and love. Stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

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That's Lulu's fan two zero. Terms and conditions apply. See Lulu's dot com for details. And we returned to our American stories and to the story of the United States Postal Service and how it all got started. Here's Daniel Piazza with more picking up with how the Postal Service helped enable the expansion of just about every transportation network throughout our country. In the 19th century, the new country is expanding rapidly westward, expanding not only the number of post offices, but the network of post roads. By the 1840s, of course, they've got to figure out the logistics of getting mail across the continent into California. This brings some controversy because most of this is done through postal contracts and there can be a lot of politics involved in government contracting. There's debate in the 1790s over, believe it or not, whether stagecoach companies should be used to carry the mail. Not because anybody objected to stagecoaches, but because, you know, who's going to get these contracts and who's going to control who gets these contracts? Eventually, the stagecoach lines do get contracts and those subsidies help to develop the road network.

This repeats itself over and over again. In the 1830s and 40s, the post office becomes an early adopter of railroads and steamships to carry the mail. And those postal subsidies from contracts incentivized the rail and shipping lines to expand to add new trackage and new routes.

Postal contracts are a predictable, steady source of revenue for transportation companies that allows them to set a kind of baseline on which they can expand their networks. The same thing happens in the early 20th century with civil aviation after the First World War. The first airlines are forming in the late 19 teens and 20s. The first regular airmail routes in the United States were between Washington and New York. A couple of years later, the route included Boston. And within the space of 10 years, the airmail network made it all the way across the continent. And then passengers and cargo followed in the wake of the mail.

So really, postal subsidies have enabled the expansion of just about every important transportation network in the country since the 18th century. Before the postage stamp was introduced, postage rates in the United States had become very complicated. Rates were based on a tangle of factors that resembled algebraic equations, including the number of sheets of paper that were in your letter, whether it had enclosures, how far the letter was traveling and so on. It was a headache both for users of the postal system and for postal clerks who have a very elaborate tiered system of rates that they have to apply to each letter individually. Postage rates of 40 cents, 50 cents or more on a letter were not uncommon.

And that's a lot of money in the 1830s and 40s. This leads to pressure for postal reform. People are reforming all sorts of things. The first women's rights movements, abolitionism, temperance laws and the like. And although it's all but forgotten today, one of the biggest reform movements of all was the postal reform movement, led by people who felt that simplifying the postage rates and giving people more equal access to postal service would also help all of the other reform movements that were underway to flourish.

Feminist literature, abolitionist tracts, notices of temperance meetings could circulate more easily and cheaply. So in a sense, postal reform is the meta reform that makes a number of other movements possible. Postage stamps were invented in 1840 in Great Britain. It was a one penny stamp that's known to collectors everywhere as the penny black because it was printed in black ink and shows the profile of Queen Victoria. The first US postage stamps were issued in 1847. The introduction of the postage stamp, apart from being a cultural phenomenon that includes the artistry and imagery of stamps and the whole field of stamp collecting, it represents a complete change in the postal business model. Until the 1840s, most letters were carried through the postal system unpaid. Most letters were paid for when they were picked up at the post office. Some people actually went and sorted through their mail and decided which letters they wanted to take and pay for and which letters they were going to leave. A high percentage of letters became what are known as dead letters and were destroyed, undelivered and unpaid for. The idea of postage stamps is to simplify the whole system by requiring that letters be prepaid before they enter the system. This allowed the postage rates to be drastically reduced and led to an explosion in the number of letters carried by the post office. And you can buy these little things called postage stamps, which have stored value. They're like IOUs or coupons you buy from the post office and redeem it at any time. The idea of a postal savings or banking system actually began overseas and was adopted by the United States rather late. The United States started postal savings in 1911. This is the high tide of unrestricted immigration to the United States.

You've got millions of immigrants coming into the United States. Many of them do not have bank accounts. They do not have a lot of money, and banks are very much for the wealthy in this period. And so the idea is that the postal service could provide a sort of parallel banking system for small depositors. And actually postage stamps come into play here, too, because postal savings stamps are issued so that users can save small sums, pennies, nickels, quarters in the form of a savings stamp that can then be saved up to make larger deposits or even to buy government savings bonds. There were a number of crises in the post office department in the 1960s related to wages, understaffing, and poor working conditions in some post offices, especially in large cities. Added to this, the volume of mail was steadily increasing. This resulted in a number of strikes in various places, primarily in New York and Chicago, but there were smaller strikes and work stoppages, slowdowns, and other sorts of industrial action in other places as well. And then there were other places where the mail system simply stopped functioning. The National Guard was called in to sort and deliver the mail in many places, and the mail was being rerouted from cities experiencing strikes to smaller post offices. So the need to reform the post office department, which really had not at that point undergone any major changes since the great reform of the 1840s, 120 years in the past at that point, the need became pretty evident. What ends up happening is the Postal Reorganization Act, and the old post office department is actually abolished, replaced with a new United States Postal Service, which comes into existence on July 1, 1971.

This is the creation of the organization that we have now, a quasi-independent government corporation, basically wholly owned by the federal government, but not receiving any appropriations and empowered to some extent to make its own business decisions about how it's going to run its organization and manage its operations. I think that the post office is still a major facet of American life for a few reasons. One is that it has continually adapted to change and consumers' needs.

Sometimes it was in the lead, sometimes it lagged a little behind, but it always evolved. And in some ways, our needs haven't changed since the 1790s. We have certain human needs for communication, for exchange of information and ideas, for exchange of business correspondence and packages. The Postal Service still fulfills these needs for the most people at the lowest price. It has lots of competitors, particularly in the package business, but nearly all of them have lots of places they can't or won't deliver to because it's not cost-effective. The Postal Service has to deliver to everybody, and that universality represents a lot of what the post office offers that private competitors don't.

And a terrific job on the production and storytelling by our own Madison Derricotte, and a special thanks to Daniel Piazza of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. And we learn that a lot hasn't changed in America about some of the early debates. Some were skeptical about forming a National Postal Service for the usual reasons. The British should use it as a spying mechanism, too much centralization of power. We get how to get stuff from A to B. And in the end, the Continental Congress and the Constitution, well, the Constitution itself authorizes the formation of the Postal Service, and George Washington wanted it because in the end, they needed a way to make money. The story of how the U.S.

Postal Service came to be, here on Our American Stories. So take a break from adulting and get back to your roots. Download the Happy Color app today. Dating on apps can be tough, especially if you're, let's say, a little freaky. HUD app is changing the face of casual dating with an empowered approach to commitment-free dating, especially for women to take control of their intimacy in a safe and secure way. HUD app understands that not everyone wants to settle down, get married, and have kids. Some women are just looking for fun.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-27 17:55:18 / 2023-02-27 18:03:14 / 8

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