The Birth of the United States Post Office

In early colonial times most correspondence took place between the colonists and England. The King’s authorities would read and scour all of the information and mail that was being sent. Correspondence between the colonies depended on trusted friends, merchants, or friendly Native Americans.

Around 1639 Richard Fairbanks’ Tavern in Boston, Massachusetts was designated as the official repository of mail by The General Court of Massachusetts (appointed by the King). Using taverns as mail drops was common practice in England, and the colonists adopted this practice as well. Local authorities designated by town representatives and England operated post routes within the colonies, some of which are still around today.

In 1673, Governor Francis Lovelace of New York set up a monthly mailing post between New York and Boston. The post rider’s trail became known as Old Boston Post Road, which is part of today’s U.S. Route 1. Old Post Road in North Attleborough, Massachusetts was part of this rider’s trail and is considered one of the oldest roads in America.

In 1683, William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania and a leader in the Quaker community, established its’ first post office. Slaves or private messengers delivered communications from one plantation to another.

Most importantly, Thomas Neale received a twenty-one year grant in 1691 from the British Crown to begin a North American postal service. Neale had never laid foot on North American soil, so he appointed then Governor Andrew Hamilton of New Jersey as his Deputy Postmaster General. Neale’s franchise cost him only 80 cents a year. In 1699, he assigned his interests in America over to Andrew Hamilton and R. West. Neale died heavily in debt as a result of this endeavor.

By 1707, the British Government had purchased the rights to the North American postal service from the widow of Andrew Hamilton and R. West. The government then appointed Andrew Hamilton’s son, Andrew, as Deputy Postmaster General of America. He served until 1721 when he was succeeded by John Lloyd of Charleston, South Carolina.

In 1730, Alexander Spotswood, a former lieutenant governor of Virginia, became Deputy Postmaster General for America. Seven years later, Spotswood appointed Benjamin Franklin as postmaster of Philadelphia. In 1753, Bejamin Franklin and William Hunter who was postmaster of Williamsburg, Virginia, were appointed by the British Crown as Joint Postmasters for the colonies. Upon Hunter’s death in 1761, a man by the name of John Foxcroft of New York succeeded him, serving until the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

During his time as a Joint Postmaster General for the Crown, Benjamin Franklin influenced many important and lasting improvements in the colonial posts. He immediately began to reorganize the service; he inspected post offices in the North and as far south as Virginia. New surveys were made, milestones were placed on principal roads, and new and shorter routes were laid out. For the first time, post riders carried mail at night between Philadelphia and New York, and the travel time had been shortened in half.

William Goddard, a publisher, set up a post for colonial only mail service. This was separate from the British crown and was funded by purchasing subscriptions. Net revenues were to be used to improve his postal service. In 1774 Goddard suggested to Congress that the colonies come together to form a United Postal Service. He believed that this would be a way to separate the colonies’ mail from the British postal inspectors. This way they could communicate colonial news only to the colonies. Goddard proposed his idea of a postal service to Congress two years before the Declaration of Independence was signed

By 1774 colonists did not trust the British crown and viewed the royal post office with suspicion. Benjamin Franklin had been dismissed of his post duties by the Crown for his actions. The crown believed that Franklin was displaying sympathy to the cause of the colonies. In September 1774, shortly after the Boston riots, known today as the Boston Massacre, the colonies began to separate from England. A Continental Congress was organized at Philadelphia in May 1775 to establish an independent government. One of the first questions before the delegates was how to convey and deliver the mail.

With the Revolutionary War imminent, the Continental Congress assembled and enacted the “Constitutional Post.” This act ensured that communications between the public and patriots, or those fighting for America’s independence, continued. On July 26, 1775, the Second Continental Congress chose Benjamin Franklin as the nation’s first Postmaster General. The establishment of the organization that became the United States Postal Service nearly two centuries later traces back to this date and Ben Franklin. In 1760, Franklin reported a surplus to the British Postmaster General.

Franklin dedicated himself in this position, as well as many others, to fulfill George Washington’s dream of an information highway between the citizens and government. Like Goddard, whose idea was to become united, Washington believed, that as a nation, we could forever be bound together by a communication system of roads. When Franklin left office in November of 1776, post roads operated from Florida to Canada and mail between the colonies and England was operating on a regular schedule.

America’s present day postal service descends from an unbroken line of the system Franklin created, planned, and placed in operation. History rightfully affords him major credit for establishing the basis of the postal service that has performed magnificently for the American people.

The Post Office and the Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation (our countries first written form of government) gave Congress the right and power to establish and regulate post offices from one state to another, and to exact postage on papers passing through the same as may be required to so to defray expenses of the post office.

The Postal Act of 1792 further defined the role of the Postal Service. Under the act, newspapers were allowed in the mails at low rates to promote the spread of information across the states. To ensure the sanctity and privacy of the mails, postal officials were forbidden to open any letters in their charge unless they were undeliverable. These provisions enlarged and strengthened the duties of the Post Office and unified the organization by providing rules and regulations for its development. One of which was the transportation of mail. Other than by railroad or steamboat, the delivery of mail would only be given to bidders who offered stagecoach services.

Postal headquarters were located in Philadelphia until 1800, and then later moved to Washington, D.C… Officials carried all postal records, furniture, and supplies from Philadelphia to D.C. in in two horse drawn wagons.

The Post Office and the President’s Cabinet

In 1829, then President Andrew Jackson appointed William T. Barry of Kentucky to become the first Postmaster General within a President’s Cabinet. However, the Department of the Post Office was not formally established as an executive department by Congress until June of 1872.

In 1830, an investigative and inspection branch of the Post Office was established and was led by P.S. Loughborough. Loughborough is known as first Chief Postal Inspector.

Up to 1845, mail was delivered by coach, railroad, or steamboat. This was abolished by Congress on March 3, 1845. This act provided that the Postmaster General will lease all contracts to the lowest bidder who gave sufficient guarantee of providing a faithful performance, without conditions, except to provide for the “celerity, certainty and security” of the transportation of mail. These bids became known as “celerity, certainty, and security bids” and were represented by three stars known as star routes.

Scandals

The Star Routescandals involved United States Post Office officials receiving bribes in exchange for awarding postal delivery contracts in the southern and western areas of the states. In 1872 and 1876, during President Grant’s administration, an investigation into what is called the Star Route Frauds had been made. However, evidence in the investigation had been tainted by bribery and the investigation was temporarily shut down in 1876. A resurgence of the Star Route Frauds took place in 1878 under the Hayes Administration and continued into the Garfield Administration. Many of the major players involved were large contractors, US Representatives, and past Postmaster Generals.

Then in 1881, then President James A. Garfield led an investigation into the corruption of the Star Route Frauds. After Garfield’s death by assassination, then Vice-President, turned President Chester A. Arthur continued the investigation. A trial then prosecution took place in 1882 finally shutting down the Star Route Frauds and its William M. Webster IV ring.

Although the Star Route Frauds were widespread, there were few that were convicted. As a result of public distrust over the frauds and death of President Garfield, the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 was implemented. This act is a federal law that stipulates that federal government jobs will be awarded on merit. The act provides for the selection of government employees by means of competitive exams. It also made it made it illegal to fire or demote government employees for political reasons.

Under President Theodore Roosevelt, allegations of widespread corruption in the U.S. Postal Service were made. An internal investigation in 1902 revealed many cases of bribery, blackmail, overcharging, and extortion. The press publicized the findings in 1903. This forced the President to appoint two special prosecutors who subsequently indicted 30 Post Office officials and private contractors.

In 1994 Congressional Post Office scandal referred to the discovery of corruption among various Post Office employees and members of the United States House of Representatives. Investigations took place from 1991 through 1995, and ended in the conviction of House Ways and Means Committee chairman, democrat Dan Rostenkowski.