Postal system

Two books tell how our postal system created a communications revolution

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated the American postal system as a marvel of its time, a “great bond between minds”. According to Devin Leonard, he may be gone soon. Drenched in red ink, the United States Postal Service has closed offices, reduced hours of operation, closed processing plants and downsized. While Leonard’s diagnosis of the United States Mail as a “dying institution” may be premature (the Postal Service is still the largest civilian employer in the United States after Walmart), the system is clearly in crisis.

Leonard’s “Neither Snow nor Rain” and Winifred Gallagher’s “How the Post Office Created America” ​​celebrate the historic past of the postal system and trace its decline. Gallagher, a journalist whose previous books have often focused on behavioral science, emphasizes the accomplishments that made the postal system a crucial American institution. Present in every community and known to every citizen, the service was an obvious marker of the federal government at a time when centralized governance was largely out of sight.

Her book is the work of an enthusiast, an ode to a government enterprise that has been little publicized but flagship. Unlike the British Royal Post, which before the mid-19th century reforms served primarily as an official government correspondence channel, the United States Mail, she tells us, was Republican by birth. For example, the Post Office Act of 1792 indeed subsidized the circulation of newspapers, disseminating national and international news to distant states and creating informed citizens. It reminds us, echoing historian Richard John, that the Post forged a communications revolution as profound as the later telegraph and Internet revolutions. But these public channels of communication could deepen division and foster unity, which northerners and southerners knew. In 1802, at the behest of slave owners who feared free blacks would use the system to further the slave rebellion, Congress banned non-whites from carrying the mail. The abolitionists, in turn, flooded the South with anti-slavery literature. After pro-slavery citizens of Charleston broke into the local post office in 1835 and burned the mail, the Postmaster General sanctioned the removal of abolitionist mailings to the South, the first in a series of actions government restricting the free exchange of information through the post office. .

Gallagher glosses over such controversies to present an almost mythical take on the past, especially the nation’s westward expansion. She tells us about the crucial role of the post in transporting information over great distances and in building a national presence in Western territories. In the process, however, she simplifies the story of cultural exchange, diplomacy, violence, expropriation, and war in a West that was, though impractical, already settled. By presenting the Western expansion as a story of “itinerant Americans” who “fled agriculture and civilization for wild life in a preserved natural world,” it ignores generations of historians who have told a more complex tale. colonial settler capitalism and its tragic significance. for indigenous populations.