A history of the United States postal system, which George Washington believed would “tranquilize” the country’s restless citizenry.
In 1792, the new nation’s Congress passed the Post Office Act, giving citizens access to mail service. As Gallagher (New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, 2011, etc.) makes clear in this well-researched history, the law did not make such service “a basic right, like freedom of speech or religion,” but merely stipulated that the government would meet citizens’ demands. Benjamin Rush and James Madison believed postal service essential to “ensure democracy…educate the people, and change society.” With newspapers dominating mail, keeping citizens informed was a major function. From the beginning, though, postal service was undermined by bad roads and high costs for postage. Independent delivery services arose, undercutting the government’s rates and providing quicker, more reliable service by its own couriers. As the nation expanded westward, these competitors vied to meet the needs of Californians, who demanded “a reputable, regularly scheduled, twice-weekly stagecoach service that would carry both mail and travelers.” The short-lived Pony Express, and later Wells and Fargo, offered delivery through treacherous territory. Gallagher cites a Pony Express ad: “Wanted: Young, skinny fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” During the Civil War, the South scrambled to set up its own postal service, including issuing stamps. One enslaved man “successfully mailed himself to freedom inside a wooden crate” that was delivered to Philadelphia abolitionists. Gallagher traces the way a burgeoning postal service created a market for pens, stationery, and other letter-writing accouterments. The United States Postal Service was created in 1970, transforming a government agency into a government-owned corporation. The author regrets Congress’ “dysfunctional relationship” with the USPS and suggests ways to modernize “the world’s most productive postal system.”
The future of the post, Gallagher argues in this readable, straightforward history, depends on citizens’ awareness of its history. For a somewhat livelier, personality-driven account of the USPS, see Devin Leonard’s Neither Snow nor Rain (2016).