As the frontier of the new United States moved ever farther west, post offices, the post roads that served them, and the newspapers that were given preferential treatment by the post office made up the glue that held the new republic together.
When they were still scattered groups working their way towards the inevitable confrontation with Britain, the members of the Committees of Correspondence realized that reliable, secure communication—in those days that meant the mails was essential. The existing colonial mail system operated by the British government, was expensive and was definitely NOT secure, since it was common practice for post office personnel to open and read suspicious communications. Thus the conspirators established the Constitutional Post, North America’s first truly independent postal system.
When it came time to create a more perfect union with a new Constitution, the founders recognized that a safe, secure national postal system, open to all at the same price, was not only vital to the new country’s growth, but was required if the representative democracy they’d invented was to function properly.
Starting with the first post office department under the Articles of Confederation headed by Benjamin Franklin, the mail was defined as anything carried in the official portmanteau, a large satchel secured with a special lock, for which postmasters were supplied a special key. Anyone without a key could not, by definition, be a postmaster because they could neither accept nor send mail via the official portmanteau.e
The term “mail,” in fact had always referred to the bag in which communications were carried, since it was a derivation of the French word “male,” meaning sack or bag.
While official mail was carried in the portmanteau, unofficial communications were carried outside the portmanteau—outside the mail. Some of the earliest debates in Congress concerned what was considered part of the official mail to be carried in the portmanteau and what would not be so considered.
With the Constitution approved and in effect, Congress tried to settle the debate over the official carriage of the mails with passage of the Post Office Act of 1792. Besides having a tremendous impact on the economic growth of the new nation, the act had a momentous impact on the settlement and the economic development of the Old Northwest Territory that included the modern states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.
Among the act’s most important provisions were:
¶ Codifying Congress’s power to establish post offices and post routes in accord with Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the Constitution. Previously, the Post Office Department established post routes. Congress’s involvement assured the number of post offices would quickly expand due to constituent pressure, even on the lightly settled frontier;
¶ Forbidding government inspection of the mails. In Europe, the mails were routinely intercepted and inspected by the government. With the assurance of privacy for all users, from the government itself to individuals and businesses, were able to use the mails confidently;
¶ Establishing the basis for the symbiotic relationship between the post office and stagecoach companies. By the 1830s, the stage companies, due to their reliance on mail contracts for anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of their revenues, were virtually quasi public arms of the federal government; and
¶ Mandating the inclusion of all newspapers in the official mail. Previously, newspapers were carried outside the mail—outside the official portmanteau—meaning their delivery was often hit or miss at the whim of the stagecoach drivers or horseback mail carriers. The act required all newspapers, regardless of content, be carried in the portmanteau, thus assuring regular and prompt delivery of the kinds of information Congress deemed vital to an informed electorate.
Combined, these provisions assured the astonishing success of the government’s first venture into information technology—efficiently delivering the private and business communications and news the mails contained. And each provision had a profound effect on the settlement and development of northern Illinois and the rest of the Old Northwest.
And then, two years after the War of 1812 began, Congress passed the Post Office Act of 1814, further strengthening the nation’s mail delivery system. Among its provisions, the law mandated extending mail service to all county courthouses. Included in the law were existing courthouses—county seats—and those contemplated in the future. With the Northwest Territory beginning to be divided into states (Illinois would become a state just four years later), this provision proved essential to settlement. Once a county was established, it was guaranteed to receive mail service through at least one location, the county seat, no matter how small or how isolated that county and its seat were.
Postmaster General John McLean, who took office in 1823, instituted a number of other innovations that, by 1830, made the U.S. Post Office the world’s most effective postal delivery system.
McLean was an organizational genius who artfully perfected the hub and spoke delivery system invented by Joseph Habersham, a former Georgia merchant who was John Adams’ postmaster general. Habersham’s system, introduced in 1800, made every post office in the nation into either a hub or a spoke.
The system relied on central distribution offices—the hubs—which supplied a number of satellite “common” post offices that comprised the spokes of the system.
McLean also perfected the system under which the post office department controlled the mails at individual post offices, but relied on quasi-private contractors to carry the mail from office to office. To move the mail during early days of the republic, that meant brave men on horseback willing to fight off wild animals, thieves (no credit cards or money orders in those days, cash only), and angry Indians. Eventually, as roads were improved, companies were established that moved the mail with wagons and then coaches by stages, broken up by stops where teams could be changed, mail exchanged, and passengers fed and rested. And thus the derivation of “stagecoach.”
By 1828, McLean’s network of private stagecoach contractors was in place and working very well, although he frequently and bitterly complained about stage company owners cheating on their contracts. As perfected by McLean, the system of private stage contractors required such close cooperation between the post office and the contractors that the stage companies were actually little more than extensions of the post office itself. In fact, before 1840, a stage company that lost its mail contract bid was required to sell its coaches, horses, and other assets to the successful bidder.
When the Post Office Act of 1792 was passed, most mail in the former colonies was carried by horseback because of the near total lack of even rudimentary roads. State governments jealously guarded their rights to build and maintain roads, resisting every effort of the Federal Government to lend a financial hand, an attitude that nearly drove President George Washington (a huge post office supporter) to distraction. So to get around the states’ resistance, instead of creating roads, Congress created post routes. And as those post routes were established, their citizens demanded state and local governments improve their road systems, because people wanted their mail on time.
As the frontier moved west, so did McLean’s system. Chicago was awarded a post office in March 1831, with its mail delivered on horseback from the hub at Detroit, whose mail was delivered via the Great Lakes. The next year, a one-horse stage wagon went into service between the two towns, followed by a two-horse wagon in 1833.
Ottawa, 60 miles southwest of Chicago, was granted its post office in 1832, with mail arriving from Peoria either overland or up the Illinois River by steamboat. Communities in Kendall County, through which two of the three major Chicago to Ottawa trails ran, received mail from both the Ottawa and Chicago hubs.
Our small county of Kendall got its first post office at Holderman’s Grove on the Chicago to Ottawa Road in April 1834, with other offices springing up in 1837 at the villages of Little Rock, Oswego, and Newark.
With the establishment of post offices, the county’s new settlers could correspond with the folks back east and could also make sure they were informed citizens thanks to the newspapers carried in the official mail.
Today, the post office still provides a vital, dependable, secure link to every community in the country, even as it tries to survive attacks by those whose goal it is to transfer government services, and our tax dollars, to private companies.
One response to “How the Post Office helped settle America”
Boo Yah! What a great closing zinger!