Tag Archives: journalism

How the Post Office helped settle America

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.

mail-on-horseback

Carrying the mail on horseback, as it mostly was during the first decade of the nation’s existence, was expensive (one man on horseback could only carry so much mail) and dangerous for the mail carrier since the mails usually contained money.

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.

1830s-arrival-of-the-stage

By the 1820s, roads in the old 13 Colonies had been sufficiently improved to permit the use of stagecoaches built in Troy, N.Y. and Concord, N.H. Eventually, the Concord Coach became the stage industry’s standard vehicle, although companies also used a variety of other wagons and carts as well.

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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Business, Local History, Newspapers, People in History, Transportation

Elections have consequences, sometimes more profound than we imagine

As I write this, folks all over the country are voting for the next President of the United States. Here at the Matile Manse, we cast our votes a week or so ago at the Oswego Village Hall, so our ballots are already part of the results of this historic election.

And historic it is, with the first woman representing a major U.S. political party possibly on the way to winning office. If Hillary Clinton does indeed prevail, she’ll be the second trendsetter in a row, following Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American President.

If we’re lucky enough to see a Clinton Presidency, the Republic will be safe for at least four more years as opposed to the existential danger to Constitutional government posed by her erratic, seemingly mentally unbalanced opponent.

The thing is, elections have consequences, and this election has more real consequences than any in the nation’s history. There have been other elections with major consequences, although none of them posing as dire a threat to our freedom as the current one. A case in point was the election of Andrew Jackson.

Political patronage armies are taken for granted these days—and looked upon with a good deal of well-deserved suspicion, for that matter. But when patronage was introduced, it was hailed by many as an innovative reform of the political process in the U.S. It also had an important impact on the settlement of the Old Northwest, including Illinois in general and Kendall County in particular.

1829-andrew-jackson

Andrew Jackson, although a wealthy planter by the time he was elected President, was the first chief executive who was born poor.

Prior to the election of Andrew Jackson in 1829, the reins of political power in the United States were held by what amounted to an oligarchy of rich Northern intellectuals and even richer Southern planters. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all belonged to the Virginia aristocracy while the two Adamses, John and John Quincy, were New England patricians.

Jackson was the first person born poor to become President and he was determined (as only Jackson could be) to work hard to represent what he saw as the interests of the common man—as long as that man was white and, you know, a man.

One of the first things Jackson noted when he took office was that the government bureaucracy was dominated by representatives of the oligarchy of landed and moneyed classes typified by the first six presidents. Jackson was a very good politician in his own right, and he quickly realized that information and communication is power in any government—especially in a democracy. In order to solidify his power and also to make government more responsive to the people instead of the landed and wealthy, Jackson essentially invented patronage.

“Office is considered a species of property, and government rather as a means of promoting individual interests than as an instrument created solely for the service of the people,” he complained upon assuming office.

1835-amos-kendall

Amos Kendall, former lawyer and newspaper man, was Jackson’s political hatchet man and confidant. Kendall and Jackson essentially invented the patronage system as a way to assure two-way communication to and from Washington, D.C. to local communities.

Not only did he vigorously weed out the oligarchs in Washington, but working closely with his old friend Amos Kendall, whom Jackson eventually named Postmaster General, the new President proceeded to make local U.S. Post Offices his eyes and ears in every community in the nation.

When Jackson was elected, settlement was just beginning in Kendall County. The earliest pioneers arrived starting in 1826, settling in the southern part of the county in that area south of the old Indian Boundary Line. After the Black Hawk War of 1832, intense settlement began north of the line as pioneers flooded into the county in violation of treaties with Native American tribes.

The village of Oswego is an example of how settlement occurred in Kendall County in the 1830s. William Wilson and Daniel, John, and Walter Pearce and their families settled the area in 1833. In 1835, Levi Arnold and Lewis Judson laid out a village where the Fox River narrows and a good limestone ford across the stream was located, calling it Hudson. As soon as it was laid out, the town’s developers and the area’s early settlers began promoting their investment.

Settlers wanted to promote their areas for two major reasons during the pioneer period—financial gain and political power. Certainly those who were first to claim land in a fast-growing area stood a good chance of making money from their investment. But most early town builders—at least those in Kendall County—had financial gain second on their list of hopes for the future. Their real goal was political power, and that is why they encouraged settlement and the growth of pioneer industries.

With population growth came the possibility of representation, first at the local level. Local governments were the first to be formed, and often their first goal was to make sure the town acquired a road. A branch of the Chicago-Galena Trail and one of three branches of the Chicago-Ottawa Trail, ran through Oswego when it was established. The Galena Road was soon lost to enterprising businessmen in Montgomery, who in turn soon lost it to Aurora.

The Ottawa Trail remained, however, and in 1837 local interests achieved a major political victory when they succeeded in persuading the government to establish a post office in Oswego. With the post office came a direct pipeline to Washington D.C. via President Jackson’s patronage army via postmaster Levi Arnold.

1838-oswego-roads-1838

While working their way west across the Prairie from Naperville in 1838, U.S. Government surveyors referred to the village along the Fox River as Hudson. But when they arrived to survey the village site, they noted its new name, “Oswego.” The village sat at the intersection of roads north along the Fox River, west to Dixon, southeast to Plainfield, and east to Naperville and Chicago.

But the acquisition also resulted in another watershed: Up until 1837, Oswego was known informally as Hudson. The post office, when it was granted, was named Lodi by the U.S. Postal Service. With two competing names, it was clear something needed to be done to avert confusion, so, according to an account in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, six pioneer residents of the village met to choose a name. Votes were cast and four names received votes. “Oswego,” which received two votes, won.

Oswego’s Federal connection came early; gaining local control took a couple more years. When Oswego was settled, it was part of Kane County. By 1840, in the throes of the effects of the Panic of 1837, residents of Oswego Township, along with those in Bristol and Little Rock Township, combined with residents in six other townships then part of LaSalle County (NaAuSay, Kendall, Fox, Big Grove, Lisbon, and Seward) lobbied the Illinois General Assembly, and in February 1841 a new county was authorized, named after that same Amos Kendall who was Andrew Jackson’s political fixer. It’s always seemed a source of high irony to me that Kendall is named after one of the most powerful Democratic politicians of his day, given that the county, ever since the Republican Party was established, has been rock-ribbed GOP territory.

But anyway, the result of getting that new county established was retaining county-level political power close at hand, instead of ceding it to either Ottawa, the LaSalle County seat, or Geneva, the Kane County seat, both miles away. And in the early 19th Century, that distance was not trivial given the generally abominable state of the region’s road system.

The establishment of Oswego’s post office not only created that political pipeline to Washington, D.C., but it also connected the growing village to the national political and economic conversation via the newspaper slips carried free as part of the U.S. Mail. The slips, with their local, national, and international news items, were reprinted in the local press keeping local residents informed about everything from European wars to the latest political outrages in the nation’s capital.

Settlement continued to be promoted during the 1800s as area leaders sought direct representation in both state and Federal legislatures.

After a quiet period in the early 1900s, Kendall County’s population ballooned again beginning in the late 1950s as economic development drew new residents to the area. After pausing in the 1970s and early 1980s, another residential boom began in the late 1980s that was only stopped by the Great Recession and deflation of the huge housing bubble in 2008.

Along the way, patronage came into ill repute, and laws were passed severely limiting it. Even so, we managed to have our voices heard in both Washington, D.C. when a former area resident served as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and another Oswego resident served as minority leader of the Illinois General Assembly. Our relatively brief fling with national power came to a bad end when former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was convicted of financial misdeeds and suspected of worse things, although I think that despite his ignominious fall, he did an awful lot of good for Kendall County.

Today, there’s nothing like the Jackson-created direct pipeline from every crossroads post office in the nation directly to Washington, D.C., which may or may not be a good thing. Certainly, it seems a lot more efficient not to have every postmaster in the nation replaced when a different party assumes the Presidency, which is what happened for many, many years during the 19th Century.

But, still, one thing we’ve come to see during recent years is the bubble that Washington politicians seem to live in where they interact only with themselves and other members of the power structure in the nation’s capital, including those giant, vampire bat-like swarms of lobbyists and members of the national media. Maybe a direct connection from every local post office directly to the Oval Office to keep the President current on what regular folks are thinking might not be all bad.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

Avoiding death by starvation at the keyboard…

When it comes to blogging, there’s nothing quite as important as…food.

Oh, it certainly helps if a blogger knows what he or she is talking about. Although I’ll grant you there are an awful lot of blogs out there—including some with a thousand times the traffic of historyonthefox—written by folks who don’t seem to have a clue about what they’re famous for writing about.

But if I’ve found one blogging constant, it’s food. You’ve got to have fuel for that little furnace that lurks inside all of us so that all those brilliant insights come tumbling out as our fingers fly across the keyboard.

But eating while blogging is fraught. It’s fraught with danger for the poor keyboard from water or Diet Coke damage. It’s fraught with danger that a mispositioned sticky bun will lead to undue anger when it falls, frosting side down, on the USB hub. It’s fraught with the chance the keys will be so encrusted with the yellow cheese-like chemicals with which Cheetos are covered that the “U” will disappear completely.

So I’ve taken it upon myself to keep an eye out for foods safe to consume while blogging, not to mention other activities that require sitting at and using a computer keyboard. And the beauty is, these hints even work perfectly well with typewriters!

The TRS-80 100 replaced electric typewriters in newsrooms all over the nation in the early 1980s. But their keyboards were, if anything even more susceptible to being gummed up by Hawaiian Punch than an electric Royal typewriter.

The TRS-80 100 replaced electric typewriters in newsrooms all over the nation in the early 1980s. But their keyboards were, if anything even more susceptible to being gummed up by Hawaiian Punch than an electric Royal typewriter.

You see, I started collecting keyboard-safe foods while I was in the newspaper biz. Those late election nights required food that didn’t interfere with writing as we pounded on our electric SCM and Royal typewriters. Gradually, those were replaced with TRS-80 100s and then TRS-80 200s before we entered the Macintosh age, but eating while keyboarding was still a necessity at certain times of the year, not to mention occasionally at lunch.

Unfortunately, most homemade foods simply don’t work. Cookies are okay, depending, but cake’s a mess, and homemade sandwiches simply are not sufficiently homogenized. Pieces fall out of them and invariably end up in bad places, computerwise.

So care and good planning is required during the entire 24 hour blogging day.

Starting out early in the morning, there’s nothing like a donut and coffee while writing. In fact, come to think of it, there’s nothing like a donut and coffee at any time of the day or night. But you’ve got to watch what kind of donut. I tried them all to find out—yes, it was a long, slow slog, but someone had to do it, if for no other reason than the greater good of mankind.

So saying, sorry, Krispy-Kreme. Glazed donuts don’t work at all. Too sticky. And that goes for every other kind of raised donut-like treat including long johns, fried cinnamon rolls, bismarks, Boston crèmes, and even raised Dunkin’ Donut Munchkins. Believe me on this; I really did try them all.

Even frosted or sugared cake donuts are a bad bet.

The very best? Plain cake donuts and plain cake donut holes. Granted, you have to forgo frosting and sprinkles, but sprinkles can be (and this is the voice of experience talking) death to keyboards.

But it’s hard to find plain cake donuts at the mini-mart. About the only way you can get them is three in a box of nine with powered sugar and chocolate-covered thrown in for good measure. And what are you supposed to do with those?

The frosting-like coating on donut sticks is impervious to crumbling off, making these little honeys the favorite of donut-loving bloggers everywhere.

The frosting-like coating on donut sticks is impervious to crumbling off, making these little honeys the favorite of donut-loving bloggers everywhere.

So if the mini-mart is you only option, look for donut sticks, which are little glazed oblong cake donut-like things. Now you’re probably thinking, hey, you just said a couple paragraphs ago to abjure frosting. The beauty of donut sticks, you see, is that modern technology makes their frosting stick like glue; it just won’t come off. And it’s not sticky in the least; it’s dry as a bone, in fact. Further, you can buy a bunch of the things at once and stick them in your desk drawer to eat at your leisure, even over several months, because—and here’s the real genius behind the things—they’re already stale when you buy them!

The only other kind of mini-mart packaged donut I’ve found that works even moderately well are mini donuts completely covered with “chocolate.” The “chocolate” covering on them is more like candle wax than actual chocolate, which is a good thing because it doesn’t fall off, either. You can also pop a whole one in your mouth that you can chew at your leisure while typing. And unless you hold it tightly in your hand, the “chocolate” coating won’t melt onto your fingers. These also are usually stale right out of the package, so they’ve got a long drawer life, although wait too long and the donut component of the thing gets sort of crunchy, which has a charm all its own.

However, man cannot live by donuts alone. Really, you can’t. You need protein and salt, too. Cashews are a good choice because they include three major food groups: Oil, salt, and texture. I recommend the whole, store-brand cashews, with sea salt at Walgreens. They’re cheap and they taste pretty good, too. They’re not too greasy, and they aren’t covered with ersatz dairy products, which is why they’re better than Cheetos.

For another idea if you’re craving salt, try Pringles or other similar potato-like baked oval-shaped snack foods. These have the advantage of containing mummified potatoes, so you can swear to your spouse that, yes, you have had some vegetables during the day.

But occasionally, you just have to have meat, at least you do if you’re a former farm kid like me. Meat is a problem at the computer. It’s impossible to have a Chicago-style hot dog, for instance, because that, like a Whopper, takes two hands. Even White Castle sliders shed little bits of onion, even if you get sliders with cheese in an attempt to amalgamate the thing into a non-shedding whole. Which I did.

McDonald's cheeseburger-like menu offering is the bloggers favorite since it can be eaten with one hand and is virtually guaranteed not to shed so much as a sliver of onion.

McDonald’s cheeseburger-like menu offering is the bloggers favorite since it can be eaten with one hand and is virtually guaranteed not to shed so much as a sliver of onion.

No, the perfect meat-like sandwich to eat at the keyboard is the McDonald’s cheeseburger. With their cheeseburger, McDonalds has perfected manufacturing a unibody sandwich, a cheeseburger-like food that seems to be in a class all its own. A blogger can eat one with one hand while mousing or typing with the other and NOTHING FALLS OUT OF IT! It’s truly a remarkable achievement of food technology, without which I have no doubt journalists (and now bloggers) would frequently, and tragically, be found deceased and desiccated at their keyboards.

Some (that would include long-suffering corporate IT types who have to scrape frosting off the bottom of laser mice and empty Hawaiian Punch out of keyboards) say food and computers don’t mix. But those of us who spend far too many hours of our life working with the things know that may true. but is also beside the point.

Person’s got to eat, after all.

3 Comments

Filed under Food, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events