The Postal Service Is the Most American Thing We’ve GotRoundup
tags: Postal Service, Mail, USPS, Civic Institutions
Ted Widmer is a professor at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York and the author, most recently, of Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.
The Postal Service was never supposed to be a moneymaking enterprise, or a political football. The founders understood that the reliable delivery of information was basic to democracy.
In 1775, even before this country came into existence, the Continental Congress asked Benjamin Franklin to organize a postal system for the 13 colonies at war with a distant empire. George Washington deepened that commitment when he became president.
In 1792, he and James Madison pushed an act through Congress establishing a national system of post offices and post roads. The legislation specifically set a low rate for newspapers, so that Americans could learn about the issues of the day. As Washington wrote in his annual message of 1791, a strong postal system was essential to democracy, and would help to spread “a knowledge of the laws and proceedings of the government.”
In the years that followed, Europeans marveled at the efficiency of the American system. Alexis de Tocqueville noted an “astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers” everywhere he went. In good times and bad, the mail went out, to all of the country’s far-flung citizens. Even after the Civil War broke out, Abraham Lincoln insisted that the U.S. mail be delivered throughout the seceded states. So it was, for nearly two months, until the Confederacy established its own system, and broke off this last connection. Immodestly, Jefferson Davis created a stamp with his own image on it.
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