The Postal Act: A Free Press, Personal Privacy and National Growth

The Postal Service Act was signed into law by President George Washington on February 20, 1792. This legislation that established the United States Post Office Department as a permanent part of the Federal government of the United States.

From the Queen Anne’s Act that created a deputy postmaster general for the colonies through the Constitutional Post proposition in the early days of the Revolution, the ability to disseminate information safely, quickly, and consistently was of paramount importance to both the British crown and the colonists.

Monopolistic control over the flow of information was a powerful tool that the British colonial leaders used to their advantage.

William Goddard (1740-1817) was one of several publishers who used was forced to use private carriers to get their news past the prying eyes of the Crown post. Goddard experienced the abuse of authority by British directly in Philadelphia after he and Benjamin Franklin began publish the Pennsylvania Chronicle. The paper was unashamedly sympathetic to the revolutionary cause. To help keep a damper on revolutionary ideas, the local Philadelphia Crown postmaster failed to deliver out-of-town newspapers to Goddard. This, of course, deprived Goddard of critical sources of news and information.

Eventually, the Chronicle was driven out of the news business when the Crown post simply refused to accept it for delivery to its subscribers. Goddard responded by designing a very American postal system founded on the principles of open communication, freedom from governmental interference, and the guaranteed free exchange of ideas. When the Postal Service Act was passed over a decade later, Goddard’s ideals played a role in shaping the new system.

The Postal Act of February 20, 1792

Early Postal Guidelines

The Postal Act of February 20, 1792 defined the character of the new Post Office Department. Intense and spirited debate in Congress separated the old colonial postal practices from the new direction and goals of this new, American, postal service. The debates examined issues of a free press, personal privacy and national growth.

The Postal Service Act also gave the Postmaster General greater legislative legitimacy and a far more effective organization. The US Postal Service was an integral part of the growth of the nation, but the postmaster general’s position was considered primarily to be a patronage post for political allies of the president. This continued until the Postal Service was transformed into a corporation run by a board of governors in 1971 following passage of the Postal Reorganization Act.

  • A Free Press Under the act, newspapers could be sent through the mail at discounted rates, subsidized by the Federal government itself, to better promote the spread of information across the nation.
  • National Growth – The Act also helped shape the expansion of the nation with Congress assumin the responsibility for the creation of new postal routes to help guide settlement, expansion, and development. They wanted to use the promise of mail delivery to help grow the nation and economy instead of serving only existing communities.
  • Personal Privacy – To ensure the sanctity and privacy of the mails, postal officials were forbidden to open any letters in their charge unless they were undeliverable. Finally, Congress assumed responsibility for the creation of postal routes, ensuring that mail routes would help lead expansion and development instead of only serve existing communities.

It still took time for the USPS to get to every part of the colonies. The American Counties to 1900 collection has this story about mail delivery to Royalton, NY before it had a post office of its own.

History of Niagara County

Previous to the establishment of post routes in this town, which was not until 1826, Batavia was the nearest office. The neighbors would club together, put a boy on a horse, and about once a month he could be seen wending his way through forest and stream, around the swamps, and along the seldom-used trail, to get, perchance, half a dozen letters and papers for four times that number of families.

Royalton to Batavia

Patiently the longing settlers waited the return of their faithful post rider, and when he returned, if no tidings came from loved ones, they did their best to suppress the silent tears that would often betray their sadness. But the advent of the Erie Canal, with its swift-floating packets, gave the post-office department a new lease of life, and post-offices were established all along its banks. The first in this town was at Reynale’s Basin, and was called Royalton post-office. In a very few years the office was moved to Royalton Center, by which name it is still known; while Reynale’s Basin was dignified with a post-office by that name, which it still retains, although receiving its mail through the Gasport office. Since then the mail facilities have increased, so that the town is well supplied. There are now six post-offices in the town, viz., Middleport, Reynale’s Basin, Orangeport, Royalton Center, Gasport and Wolcottsville.

THE TOWN OF ROYALTON—HISTORY OF NIAGARA COUNTY with Illustrations Descriptive of its Scenery, Private Residences, Public Buildings, Fine Blocks, and Important Manufactories, Portraits of old Pioneers and Prominent Residents, 1878, p. 348.

You can learn more about the founding of the United States Postal System at the National Postal Museum, part of the Smithsonian.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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