Title: Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse
Author: Richard John
Categories: Institutional History, Political History, Communications Revolution, Early Republic, Jacksonian Era, Communications
Place: United States
Time Period: 1775-1844
Richard John writes a history of the American postal system in the early republic and argues for its centrality an instrumental agent of change. John details how the post spurred on a communications revolution that helped bind together the early republic into a national community by 1828. In doing so, he argues against historians that have seen the federal government as weak during this period, instead highlighting just how huge and administratively complex the post was during this period and how much power the central government had via the institution to shape everyday life.
Beginning with the landmark US Post Office Act in 1792, the post fostered public and political discourse through subsidizing the transmission of news through the mails and allowed the business community to send commercial information and material (money, bills, etc.). John notes that the post helped create an imagined community across great distance, but that this community was partially formed via the exclusion from the postal system of participation by blacks and women. Debates during the period over the Post often revolved around the broader role of government in American society and how limited or active it should be. One of John's prime examples for this were the periodical Sabbatarian debates during the late-1810s and mid-1820s around whether the government should actively enforce public morality by disallowing mail on Sunday. John argues that the Jackson administration marked a turning point for the Post. John is critical of Jackson, pointing out how the post became much more politicized as part of the spoils system and less independent as an institution. The post became part of a larger trend towards the development of a "mass party" bolstered by patronage of sought-after postmaster positions. John argues that the Jacksonian era was a missed opportunity for the federal government to tie the nation together via the post. Instead, Jackson staffed the postal system with Democrats committed to blocking the expansion of federal power. The one notable exception, however, was the banning of abolitionist material through the mail in the 1830s. John takes Jackson (and his postmaster, Amos Kendall) to task for allowing the infringement on the institution's independence, and in fact notes that what had once been an agent for national cohesion had become an agent of national division based on sectional conflict.
Key Themes and Concepts
- 1792 Post Office Act - one of the most important pieces of legislation of the period
- Communications Revolution - by 1831 US had undergone a communications revolution via the postal network
- Power of central government - to shape everyday life and enforce things like morality. Works against historiography that insists on weakness of federal government in early republic and that privileges social processes rather than public policy.
- Imagined Community - post helped foster extra-local connections and awareness, at same time excluded others (blacks and women)
- Subsidies - US Post massively subsidized the transmission of public, printed information at the cost of private transmissions
- Post suffered setbacks in 1830s under Jackson - becomes less meritocratic, more based on patronage and spoils system
- Size and complexity of the postal system as an institution
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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