A Little History
On July 26, 1775, members of the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and made the following agreement:
That a Postmaster General be appointed for the United Colonies, who shall hold his office at Philadelphia, and shall be allowed a salary of 1000 dollars per [year] for himself, and 340 dollars per [year] for a secretary and Comptroller, with power to appoint such, and so many deputies as to him may seem proper and necessary. That a line of posts be appointed under the direction of the Postmaster General, from Falmouth in New England to Savannah in Georgia, with as many cross posts as he shall think fit.
This is how the Post Office Department, the predecessor of the USPS, was born. Prior to this, delivery of mail was a haphazard affair. People from all walks of life became unofficial mail persons as they crisscrossed the new colonies. Overseas delivery service began in a bar. In 1639, the General Court of Massachusetts designated Richard Fairbanks's Boston tavern as the official drop site for mail arriving from or being sent to England.
Individual colonies created and maintained their own postal routes. For example, Governor Francis Lovelace of New York set up a monthly route between New York City and Boston in 1673. In our day of instantaneous communication, it's hard to imagine waiting a month for a reply to a missive from dear Aunt Sally or good old Uncle George. The New-York-to-Boston service did not last long, but it gained historical significance. The route came to be known as the Old Boston Post Road, and it was later incorporated into the national highway U.S. 1. In the South, private messengers — sometimes slaves — delivered the mail.
Two former postmasters became U.S. presidents later in their careers:Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman. Truman held the title and signed papers but immediately turned the position and its pay over to an assistant. Lincoln was the only president who actually served in the role of postmaster.
Enter Benjamin Franklin
Centralized postal service in the American colonies arose thanks to a man who never set foot in North America. In 1691, Thomas Neale received a twenty-one-year grant from the Crown to create a postal system among the British colonies. Rather than visit the New World himself, he appointed Governor Andrew Hamilton of New Jersey as his deputy postmaster general. Neale's franchise cost the equivalent of eighty cents per year, but the burgeoning service wound up putting him heavily in debt. He died in 1699 after assigning his North American interests to Hamilton and to Englishman Robert West.
The British government bought the rights to the colonies' postal service in 1707 and appointed Andrew Hamilton's son, John, as deputy postmaster general of America. One of Hamilton's successors, Alexander Spotswood, appointed Benjamin Franklin as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737. At this time, Franklin was only thirty-one years old and just beginning his long and distinguished career in public service. Franklin became a living folk hero. He was an inventor: Bifocals, the lightning rod, the odometer, and the wood-burning stove that bears his name are all his inventions. He was a statesman besides, a member of the Continental Congress, ambassador to France, member of the Constitutional Convention, an abolitionist, and — much earlier — postmaster general for the American colonies.
Franklin took this post in 1753. The keen-minded Franklin made some important and lasting improvements in the colonial postal system. One of the first things he did was to inspect things up close. He set out on a long tour of post offices that took him throughout the North and as far South as Virginia. He surveyed routes, placing milestones on principal roads, and formulating shorter routes whenever possible. Franklin instituted nighttime delivery between Philadelphia and New York. Riders were able to take advantage of nearly deserted roads, and delivery time was cut. Franklin's efforts helped the colonial postal service achieve profitability for the first time. By the time he left the office, postal routes interlaced American soil from Maine to Florida, New York to Canada. Mail was delivered on a regular schedule using posted times.
The American Revolution
Franklin's revolutionary sympathies led the Crown to fire him in 1774. His successor, William Goddard, was no Benjamin Franklin, but he was no slouch as postmaster, either. He set up the Constitutional Post mail service within and among the colonies. The service was funded by subscription, and profits were put back into the enterprise. By the time the Continental Congress met in 1775 in Philadelphia, Goddard's Constitutional Post was flourishing. There were thirty post offices to be found from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Goddard required each office to hire post riders with immaculate reputations who would swear to keep the mail under lock and key.
As for the Crown's service, Goddard warned:
Letters are liable to be stopped & opened by ministerial mandates, & their Contents construed into treasonable Conspiracies; and News Papers, those necessary and important vehicles, especially in Times of public Danger, may be rendered of little avail for want of Circulation.
The Constitutional Post afforded security to colonial messages and provided a communication line that played a vital role in bringing about American independence.
Soon after the Revolutionary War began, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. Its goal was twofold: planning for colonial defense against the British army and discussing the state of the colonies themselves. What did the colonies need that they did not have to ensure that the cause of liberty would prevail? The Continental Congress quickly determined that the ability to deliver letters and intelligence was crucial. A committee, chaired by Benjamin Franklin and including Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, Philip Livingston, Thomas Lynch, and Thomas Willing, was named to consider the creation of a postal system.
Some people who were postal workers before achieving stardom include Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, William Faulkner, Sherman Hems-ley, Rock Hudson, Charles Lindbergh, and Adlai E. Stevenson. Underground author and poet Charles Bukowski worked for the postal service until he managed to make a living solely from writing. His first novel, titled
The committee reported its findings on July 25, 1775. The Continental Congress wasted no time in creating the position of postmaster general, and Benjamin Franklin was given the job. He served for a little more than a year. During that time, postal service mostly carried letters between Congress and the Revolutionary army. Postmasters and post riders were exempt from military service so that the crucial mail delivery would not be interrupted. The postal service of today stretches back in an unbroken line to Franklin himself. It's no wonder that he has received major credit for establishing a thriving postal service that continues to serve the needs of the United States.