The Original Intent of the Postal Service


April 18, 2007


Browse in Commons

Before the internet there was the postal service; and nothing showed with such clarity the views of the Founders on the importance of a free flow of information than the way they conceived and developed it.  The postal system they inherited was concentrated on the Eastern seaboard. At the time of the Revolution there were 67 post offices, all in major towns.  By 1831 there were 8,700 post offices, spread through the hinterlands.  It was the largest postal system by far in the entire world.  Great Britain had 17 post offices per 100,000 population, France had 4; and the new United States had 74.

The Americans dropped early on the Old World notion that each post office should pay for itself.  France closed any office that couldn’t generate $200 in revenue, by which standard 90% of the post offices in the U.S. would have closed too.  In America, by contrast, the established offices subsidized the newer ones and the whole system grew.  People had access to newspapers, which the system carried at a nominal rate. The subsidy was especially important to smaller papers, many of whose subscribers lived out of town. George Washington among others argued that all papers should go free.

This truly was a departure from Europe, where England and France were trying to suppress the smaller papers, to protect the ruling classes from troublesome ideas.  The British stamp taxes of the early 19th century served to put papers beyond the reach of all but the wealthy. The government required publishers to put up “caution money” of three hundred pounds – a huge amount in those days – in case they later were convicted of sedition or blasphemous libel.  This ensured that only the wealthy could publish papers.  France followed suit soon thereafter.  (This information comes from Paul Starr’s excellent book The Creation of the Media.)

The Founders saw the dissemination of news and opinion as central to the new republic they were establishing.  Where the Old World had systems of privilege, they sought an information commons; and they created a government enterprise – it employed some three-quarters of the entire federal workforce – to serve this aim.  Today, the Old World assumptions they were rejecting live on in the Bush Administration, however, and in the corporate penumbra it represents.  The Administration wants to privatize the internet, for example, and let corporations establish pricing systems that give the wealthy better service than everyone else.

Then there is the Postal Service, where this all started. The President’s Commission on the United States Postal Service has been pushing to close smaller post offices on the grounds that they do not measure up from a cost-benefit (ie corporate) standpoint.  “You don’t necessarily need post offices,” declared the commission’s co-chairman, Henry J. Pearce, the chairman of the Hughes Electronic Corp.  He’s echoing of course the old French model.

Frederick W. Smith, the founder of Federal Express, is a fraternity brother of President Bush and a leading Republican contributor. Smith also is a major funder of the Cato Institute, a libertarian opinion tank.  Both he and it think the postal service basically should go away.  (Preserving the People’s Post Office, a new book by Christopher Shaw, has much detail.)

Now comes the Post Office proposal to establish a pricing system that favors corporate giants such as Time-Warner over small publications such as the Nation and the National Review.  It is in effect a Stamp Act by other means; the mailing costs of the Nation would increase by about $500,000,  people there say. The Founders specifically rejected, in the Postal Act of 1792, the view that post offices should make a profit in dollar terms. The Bush Administration has embraced precisely what they didn’t want.

To find out more, you can go here.