This week in history: The Post Office and the Constitution


Remember a time before envelopes when you just folded the sheets of your letter, added a touch of sealing wax, and dropped it off at the post office?  Remember when there were no stamps, and it was the person at the receiving end who paid the postage?  Remember when the cost for mailing a letter depended on how far it was going, when there were even posts along the post roads to mark distances, and when it could take several weeks for a letter to go from Philadelphia to Boston?  Remember when almost every post office was a “village post office” — a counter in a general store or tavern where some postal business could be conducted?

Ah, the good old days.  The really good old days — the Post Office of the 18th century.

This is an important week in US postal history.  It was on September 22, 1789, that the newly formed Federal Government established the Post Office and authorized the appointment of a postmaster general.  A few days later, on September 26, the nation’s first postmaster general took office.   And it wasn’t Ben Franklin.  His name was Samuel Osgood.

Franklin is rightly known as the country’s first postmaster general, but that was before 1776 and the formation of the federal government.  There had been a postal system in the country since colonial days, but it suffered from inefficiency and deficits, at least until Franklin came along.  In his service to the English crown as postmaster general for over two decades, Frankln improved service and put the system in the black for the first time.

Despite his achievements, Franklin was dismissed from his post in 1774 because of his involvement with revolutionaries.  A year later, the Continental Congress established the Post Office and appointed him the country’s first postmaster general.  So we really have two “first” postmaster generals — Franklin before the Revolutionary War, and Osgood under the Constitution.  How the Post Office ended up in the Constitution is another story.

During the Revolutionary War, military leaders and elected officials could see that a robust postal system was crucial to facilitating communication and coordinating their wartime efforts.  Postal workers were even exempted from military service.  In 1778, the Founding Fathers wrote into the Articles of Confederation a clause granting the United States Congress the “sole and exclusive right and power of . . . establishing and regulating post offices from one state to another, throughout all the United States.”  The clause also empowered the post offices to charge postage “to defray the costs” of running the system.

Over the next few years, the value of the postal system to the young democracy became even more apparent.  The Post Office truly was “binding the country together.”  The Post Office helped elected representatives and their constituents keep in contact, and through its distribution of newspapers, it enabled Americans to stay informed about political issues.  Delivering newspapers was so important, in fact, that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson advocated reduced rates or even free delivery.  Madison also believed that “by providing the citizenry with the means to monitor its elected representatives, the postal system could help to check the abuse of power” (Christopher Shaw, Preserving the People’s Post Office).

In 1789, the “postal clause” of the U.S. Constitution —  Article 1, section 8 — gave the Congress power over the Post Office.  The passage states that the Congress “shall have the power . . . to establish Post Offices and Post Roads.”  The clause was a subject of controversy from the very beginning, and three years later, when Congress debated the Post Office Act of 1792, it was about whether or not Congress could and should delegate to the postmaster general its power to establish post offices and post roads.  The Senate wanted to give that role to the postmaster general, but the House said no, the Congress should retain its power.

It wasn’t just a matter of administrative authority.  The issue went to the heart of a crucial question:  Was the post office basically like a business that needed to run efficiently and pay its own way — and maybe even provide some extra revenue for the government — or was it a public service that needed to be responsive to the demands of the people?  Freeing the postmaster general from Congressional oversight would give him the power to rein in costs, but it might allow him to ignore citizens.  Keeping the Post Office under the control of Congress would ensure that it remained responsive to the demands of the people.

And it turned out Americans would demand more and more from the postal system — more post roads and more post offices — so that the number of post offices grew rapidly over the next years thirty years, from 195 to 4,500.  That expansion cost money, and it put a lot of pressure on the Post Office budget.  A pattern soon became established that has been with us ever since.  Congress would require the postmaster general to build more post roads, often in rural areas where the population was sparse, and then, when the Post Office ran too high a deficit, Congress would launch an investigation, looking for ways to cut costs.

One postmaster general after another has struggled to balance service and costs and to keep the Post Office in the black, and more than one has found himself wrestling with Congress over the public’s conflicting demands for more service and lower costs — whether that meant keeping postage rates down or fighting taxpayer subsidies.  What we’re witnessing today has a long, long history.

There’s another aspect of Article 1, section 8, that’s proven very controversial.  Defenders of the Post Office take the clause to mean the post office is “enshrined” in the Constitution, and they argue that efforts to privatize the system are essentially unconstitutional.  Opponents of the Post Office, like the Cato institute, say that the clause gives Congress the power to build a postal system if it wants to, but that if it chose to do so, it could kill the post office and replace it with a privatized system.  And while the clause has been interpreted as providing a de facto Congressional monopoly over the delivery of mail, opponents argue there’s nothing in the Constitution granting the Post Office monopoly powers.

September 26 marks the anniversary of Samuel Osgood becoming the first postmaster general under the Constitution.  Born in North Andover, Mass., he graduated from Harvard and embarked on a career in business and politics, but then war with England broke out and Osgood became a revolutionary.  In 1775 he led a local company of Minutemen into the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

After the war, Osgood returned to law and politics and served as a delegate to the Continental Congress.  When a new U.S. government was installed in 1789, President George Washington appointed Osgood the first postmaster general under the new Constitution.  He served just a couple of years, 1789 to 1791, but during his term he helped transition the Post Office from a disorganized and impoverished system into one that could be financially self-supporting.   Congress decided to make it official with the Post Office Act of 1792, which ordered that the Post Office should always be self-supporting, and if it were to generate any profits, they should be used to extend services.  It usually didn’t turn out quite like that, though, and the demand for services has usually trumped efforts to rein in costs, so the Post Office has, more often than not, needed some financial help.

The history of the Post Office thus provides some helpful context for what’s going on right now with the Postal Service, Congress, and the arguments over reducing service and closing post offices to deal with budget deficits.  But history can’t predict the future.  The next chapter is yet to be written, and the next few months will tell the tale.  We’ve had sixty-five postmaster generals since Samuel Osgood.  Will our current postmaster general be the last?

Sources for the history of the Post Office: The Electric Ben Franklin; Wikipedia on the US Postal Service, the Postal Clause, the postmaster generals, and Samuel Osgood; History Net; the National ArchivesThe Postal Precipice: Can the U.S. Postal Service Be Saved? by Kathleen Conkey; and Preserving the People’s Post Office by Christopher Shaw.)

(Image sources:  The Foundation of American Government (Franklin and others signing the constitution), by Henry Hintermeister (1925); B Free Franklin post office, on the closing list; Signing of the Constitution, by Howard Chandler Christy (1940); Samuel Osgood.)