The Post Office is in dangerous peril right now, and like most Americans, you might be wondering what you can do to help. Well, the most obvious thing is to send more mail. Buying a pack of Forever stamps helps, and so does sending little notes in the mail. It’s fun to send postcards and notes and equally exciting to receive something besides junk mail or bills, plus you’re doing your civic duty in helping prop up a bona fide American institution. One other thing you can do is get a clear understanding of how our post office came to be and what factors contributed to its formation.
The USPS got its start in 1775 during the Second Continental Congress. During the Revolutionary War, American colonies relied on communication via horseback riders who transported messages between cities, towns, and the battlefields. Making sure the mail was delivered quickly and efficiently was difficult. Still, it was also critical to the survival of the colonists and the service personnel who were fighting the Revolutionary War. Because of its vast importance to the earliest days of America, it’s often said that the post office helped create American democracy. Though the earliest Americans might not have realized it at the time, introducing a standardized postal service was the first step in creating a connected and unified country.
Three months after the Battle of Lexington and the Battle of Concord, the Continental Congress looked to Benjamin Franklin to formally establish a postal service. As the first Postmaster General, Franklin had a lot of work to do, with limited time and a limited budget. But one thing he did have on his side was the support of leadership and the early American public’s support. Everyone understood that there was something very important to be gained by establishing a national postal service and something critical that would be lost without it.
Franklin was the publisher of The Pennsylvania Gazette, and the year he was appointed postmaster, he leaned into a distinct fringe benefit of his new role. He was able to send his newspaper to readers at no cost. This helped the Pennsylvania Gazette gain a large circulation and helped serve another purpose as well – it educated the public on what was happening with the war. In 1753, Franklin was appointed the postmaster of all 13 colonies. During his tenure, he traveled extensively along the postal routes to find the most reliable and efficient route for riders. This helped lay the groundwork for our current post office, and it helped create a system of communication for everyone living in the country at the time.
The connections Franklin created on postal routes also allowed battle messages to reach leadership faster. Being up to date on troop movements, morale, and supply needs helped command chains stay ahead of the British and contributed greatly to the Revolutionary War effort.
Of all the founding institutions introduced during the earliest days of forming America, the Post Office is incredibly overlooked and undervalued, underappreciated, and unstudied. For many decades, the post office served as a de facto connection between citizens and the government. Prior to introducing the post office, knowledge of public affairs had always been limited to a specific and elite population. America needed something new, something that would allow news to be circulated throughout the entire country. The founding members of the Continental Congress wanted something different for the country they were creating and realized early on that a post office would be the central network by which they could spread information and provide access to knowledge.
Unlike other post offices in mainland Europe, Franklin wanted the American post office to transport not just mail but also ideas. In addition to delivering letters and cards, the post office creation subsidized the delivery of newspapers, which helped create an informed electorate. This was unmatched at the time and helped bind together the early colonists and set the expectation that Americans should always have open access to information. Now more than ever, that open access to information is important, just as Franklin knew two hundred years ago.