The Founders Never Intended the U.S. Postal Service to be Managed like a BusinessRoundup
tags: Donald Trump, coronavirus, United States Postal Service, the Founders
Richard R. John, a professor history at Columbia University, is the author of "Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse" (Harvard University Press).
Trump’s intransigence is a startling departure from precedent. From the 1850s until the 1960s, Congress routinely covered whatever deficits the Postal Service incurred — no matter how large — and with little controversy, partisanship or debate. Why? Because the Postal Service was a public service, whose rationale was civic rather than commercial. As a New York journalist put it in 1854: The Postal Service’s “benefit to mankind” far outweighed the “pecuniary consideration” of any financial shortfall. In 1958, a federal law made this even clearer: The Postal Service was “clearly not a business enterprise conducted for profit.”
To justify his threat, Trump claimed the Postal Service has been “mismanaged for years, especially since the advent of the Internet and modern-day technology,” which renders it less worthy of support than an ordinary business. This is a profound misunderstanding of the Postal Service’s DNA.
The Founders intended the Postal Service to be a pillar of the republic, binding together millions of Americans, urban and rural, for the common good. It therefore always had congressional oversight limiting what management can do to make a profit. Rather than being mismanaged, the Postal Service is — and has long been — one of America’s great successes. Instead of privatizing it, we should take inspiration from the Founders and re-envision its mission for the 21st century.
Before 1792, the Postal Service was basically a carbon copy of the imperial post office British colonial administrators had set up decades before the War of Independence. Little more than a chain of offices along the Atlantic seaboard — today known as the “Old Post Road” — it provided no special facilities for the press and served at best a tiny percentage of the public — mostly merchants, professionals and government officials.
The Postal Service Act of 1792 changed everything, investing the Postal Service with an expansive civic mission. While the law had no ringing preamble, it was at least as important as the First Amendment in laying the groundwork for free institutions. The act established mechanisms for rapid expansion from the seaboard into the hinterland, ultimately creating a continent-spanning postal network. This information infrastructure facilitated the rise of a nationwide market, the invention of the mass political party and the proliferation of nationally oriented voluntary associations. With the Postal Service, Congress created the world French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville would laud as the world’s first democracy when he visited the United States in 1831.
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