Daily Archives: August 2, 2019

The Colonial postage experience and the founding of the US Postal Service

By Steve Spann, Reference Department

Some institutions are so woven into the fabric of life that they are taken for granted. One such institution is the United States Postal Service (USPS). However, an examination of the history of the American colonies shows that reliable postage was an identifiable need, except not for the reason you might expect. After independence from England, the USPS was established, and it has been an integral part of our daily lives ever since.

Colonial Postage

Seal of the United States Department of the Post Office

The American colonies were mainly coastal settlements, separated by dense forests. The colonists were less interested in news from other colonies than they were for news from back home. However, the English government needed reliable delivery service between colonies in order to deliver official communications to and from the colonial governors.

There were informal and independently run postal routes for colonists in Boston as early as 1639. Then, in 1673, Governor Francis Lovelace of New York set up a monthly post between New York and Boston. The service was short-lived, but the post rider’s trail became known as the Old Boston Post Road and today it is part of U.S. Route 1.

Governor William Penn established Pennsylvania’s first Post Office in 1683. In the South, private messengers, usually slaves, connected the huge plantations; a hogshead (a barrel 43 inches high and 26 inches in diameter) of tobacco was the penalty for failing to relay mail to the next plantation. As plantations expanded inland from port regions, so did the communications network.

Centralized postal organization began in 1692, when the English sovereigns William and Mary granted a royal patent to Englishman Thomas Neale to operate a colonial postal system for 21 years. Neale, who never set foot in North America, appointed New Jersey colonial governor Andrew Hamilton as his deputy. Hamilton then appointed postmasters in every British colony.

On May 1, 1693, the Internal Colonial Postal Union began weekly service between Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Williamsburg, Virginia.  The ICPU established post offices, consulted with colonial assemblies about postal rates, and, perhaps as a harbinger of things to come, did not make any money. Mail to the North American colonies was left at places like taverns and inns, as there were no post office buildings to receive the correspondence and door to door delivery came much later.

Hamilton died in debt in 1699 and assigned his patent to an heir, who in turn sold the rights back to the English in 1707. The government then appointed Hamilton’s son John as deputy postmaster general of America. He served until 1721, when he was succeeded by John Lloyd of Charleston, South Carolina. (United, n.d.). In 1730, Alexander Spotswood, a former lieutenant governor of Virginia, became deputy postmaster general of America.

Benjamin Franklin

Patriot, inventor, and postmaster Ben Franklin.

The appointment of Benjamin Franklin as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737 may have been Spotswood’s most notable achievement. Franklin, only 31 years old at the time, was a successful printer, publisher, and civic leader, who would go on to become one of the most accomplished and popular men of his time.

In 1753, Benjamin Franklin and William Hunter, postmaster of Williamsburg, were named by the English as joint Deputy Postmaster General of the American colonies.  (United, n.d.). Franklin moved quickly, as you might expect he would, making a 1,600-mile inspection of post offices.  He also organized a weekly mail wagon between Philadelphia and Boston. Franklin’s postal riders traveled day and night by horseback in relays, using lanterns to light their way. The service cut mail delivery time between the cities in half, making the colonial post both efficient for colonists and profitable for the Crown.

The colonial posts in North America registered their first profit in 1760. When Franklin left office, post roads operated from Maine to Florida and from New York to Canada.

In 1774, as tension grew between the colonists and England, the Crown dismissed Franklin from his position because of his revolutionary activities.

William Goddard

William Goddard. Patriot, publisher, and inventor of the American postage system.

William Goddard formed a partnership with Benjamin Franklin to publish the Pennsylvania Chronicle, a newspaper sympathetic to the revolutionary cause. Savvy publishers like Goddard and Franklin used private carriers to get their news past the suspicious eyes of the Crown post, which would have confiscated and destroyed any mail or news it deemed unsuitable for the Crown. Goddard and Franklin were using the Chronicle to report on controversial topics.  The Chronicle was subsequently driven out of business when the Crown post refused to accept it in the mails. Goddard responded by creating a new postal system, that is the basis for our current USPS system. The new system was based upon some values that we now take for granted, but that were revolutionary at the time. The values included open communication, freedom from governmental interference, and the free exchange of ideas. The plan also included the creation of the position of Postmaster.

Soon after Franklin had been removed from office, Goddard set up the Constitutional Post for intercolonial mail service. Colonies paid subscriptions and net revenues were used to improve mail service. Goddard presented a plan for the new postage system to Congress on October 5, 1774. Congress waited to act until after the battles of Lexington and Concord in the Spring of 1775. By 1775, when the Continental Congress met at Philadelphia, Goddard’s post was flourishing, and 30 Post Offices operated between Williamsburg and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

However, after the colonists won victories in those battles, Goddard’s “Constitutional Post” was adopted on July 26, 1775, by the Second Continental Congress.  Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin Postmaster General of the United Colonies. Goddard was disappointed at being passed over for the position of Postmaster, but Franklin named him Riding Surveyor.

This independent postal service was significant because it kept the colonial population informed about events during the American Revolution and allowed for communication by and between patriots from different colonies. The revolutionary post became so popular among colonists that it forced the Crown post out of business. The Crown post folded on Christmas day, 1775.

The colonies became the United States on July 4, 1776, and as the states began to create their new government in the late 1780s, postal issues were among the issues that were debated and not resolved. In June 1788, the ninth state ratified the Constitution, which gave Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads” in Article I, Section 8. A year later, the Act of September 22, 1789, continued the Post Office and made the Postmaster General subject to the direction of the President. Four days later, President Washington appointed Samuel Osgood as the first Postmaster General under the Constitution. A population of almost four million was served by 75 Post Offices and about 2,400 miles of post roads.

The Post Office received two one-year extensions by the Acts of August 4, 1790, and March 3, 1791.

The 1792 Postal Act

This document signed by Franklin gave Goddard permission and authority to travel as necessary in his role as Riding Surveyor.

Congressional debate considered issues of a free press, personal privacy, and national growth. Finally, the Postal Act of February 20, 1792, defined the Post Office Department. Under the act, newspapers would be allowed in the mails at low rates, in order to promote the spread of information across the several states.

To ensure privacy, postal officials were forbidden to open any letters unless they were undeliverable.  Finally, Congress assumed responsibility for the creation of postal routes, ensuring that mail routes would not only serve existing settlements but also promote expansion into new territories.

The Act let newspaper editors exchange their newspapers by mail without any fee, so that each could more easily print the other’s news. The idea was to promote the free exchange of information. By 1825, newspapers circulated in-state or within 100 miles of publication were charged a fee of 1 cent for delivery, while the charge was for 1-1/2 cents if delivery went outside that range. Today newspapers and magazines still enjoy such special rates.

Later legislation enlarged the duties of the Post Office, strengthened and unified its organization, and provided rules for its development.  The Act of May 8, 1794, continued the Post Office indefinitely.

The Post Office moved from Philadelphia in 1800 when Washington, D.C., became the seat of government. Two horse-drawn wagons carried all postal records, furniture, and supplies. Read the rest of this entry

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