If ever there was a time to make a case for the United States Postal Service’s necessity in American civic, political, and cultural life, it may have already passed. It may then come as no surprise that two surveys of the history of the USPS are out this year: Devin Leonard’s intensely readable Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service and Winifred Gallagher’s impressively researched How The Post Office Created America: A History.
The aim of both writers—Gallagher, a former psychology editor at American Health, and Leonard, a staff writer at Bloomberg Business—is to remind us how the Post Office has so deeply and inextricably shaped the political and cultural life of America. Our mail service—still one of the largest and most efficient in the world, easily outperforming Germany and England—has had an incredible, but often unacknowledged, impact on transportation, communications, and technology in American history. Gallagher, whose study is not short of pronouncements, opens: “The history of the post office is nothing less than the history of America.”
In its beginnings, politics and the US Post Office (before it was known as the USPS) were tightly wound together, as George Washington and other founding fathers believed that the postal service was a manifestation of democracy and one that must be made available to all citizens of their new nation. With the Post Office, citizens could not only achieve a sense of national consciousness but they could also experience the real and tangible pleasures of the new democracy. According to Leonard, Washington “wanted the postal service to be a force that promoted enlightenment, circulating newspapers and political documents that would guard the public from tyrants and demagogues spreading misinformation.”
Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general, and he was, according to Leonard, “revenue-oriented” and more committed to making the Post Office a profitable business. (An issue, ironically enough, that has continued to shadow its entire existence.) Money, as much as the postal service needed it, was the cause for some doubt among citizens, and its apparent unchecked power also stirred up skepticism. Thomas Jefferson, Leonard continues, believed that it “construct[ed] a massive federal system that would be as oppressive as European monarchies.” Only after the American Revolutionary War was the Post Office’s power understood, with members of government seeing the the political and civic potential of the mail service, deciding it must be a central institution kept close to the arm of the government, lest it be exploited.
It is at this point in the Post Office’s history that Leonard’s and Gallagher’s studies depart from one another. Leonard begins structuring an episodic history, mapping out the significant moments in the Post Office’s story, which has seen dramatic transformations over the past two centuries. Gallagher—with her far richer pool of archival material—connects the transformations of the Post Office with broader economic, socio-cultural, and political changes affecting the country.