Congress and the Post Office    

The Twenty-First Century United States Postal Service is a behemoth, with 600,000 employees and $70 billion in annual revenue.  Because of its size, we seldom associate the USPS with leading edge technology.

And yet, throughout its history, the Post Office (as the Postal Service was known before 1971) has been an incubator of new transportation technology, with its patronage a critical form of subsidy.  Steamboats, railroads, and aviation all benefited hugely in their infancy from fees for mail carriage.
Nor did the process begin with the steam engine.  The Congress under the Articles of Confederation, dismissed by so many historians as a do-nothing debating society, launched the first improvement in mail service in 1785, by directing the Postmaster General to deliver the mail via stagecoach instead of on horseback.  The Postmaster General resisted, launching a four-year battle which Congress ultimately won.

The Confederation Congress, it must be emphasized, did not create the Post Office.  American revolutionaries did so spontaneously at the outset of the Revolutionary War in 1775, bypassing the expensive and insecure British colonial post.  By the time the Articles were debated and ratified, postal riders on horseback connected post offices in all thirteen states.

The Articles granted Congress limited and often vague powers, but were explicit in conferring authority over the Post Office.  “The United States, in Congress assembled,” read Article IX, “shall also have the sole and exclusive right and power of . . . establishing and regulating post offices from one State to another throughout all the United States, and exacting such postage on the papers passing through the same as may be requisite to defray the expenses of the said office.”

Thus it was that on June 30, 1785, Congress directed Postmaster General Ebenezer Hazard (whom Congress had elected in 1782) to “make enquiry, and report the best terms upon which contracts may be entered into, for the transportation of the several Mails, in the stage carriages on the different roads, where such stage carriages may be established."

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The "stage carriages on the different roads", in this era, were very much a novelty. Only a handful of stage lines had operated in colonial times, and they had shut down during the war.  Intercity travel meant either a river and ocean voyage, or a ride upon your own horse—daunting options for the young, the infirm, or the old.

With the coming of peace, however, stage lines resumed and even expanded service, especially in the Northeast.  The stagecoaches of the 1780’s were slow and uncomfortable by later standards, but they were drier and safer than riding your own horse, and one could carry at least a little bit of luggage.  Why not mail as well?  The coaches were slower than a solo horseback rider, but they had more capacity and were less vulnerable to robbery.

Hazard made the appropriate inquiries, but sent a discouraging reply to Congress in July 1785.  The demands of the stagecoach operators for fees were “exorbitant”, the mail would not be carried “more expeditiously than at present”, and the preference of stagecoaches for evening arrival would be “extremely inconvenient”.  And what about the post riders who would be thrown out of work?

Congress would have none of it.  On September 7, Congress directed Hazard to sign contracts for stage mail carriage from New Hampshire all the way to Georgia, even in Southern regions where service would need to be established from scratch.  Charles Pinckney of South Carolina later explained why—“(T)he intention of Congress in having the mail transported by stage carriages, was not only to render their conveyance more certain and secure, but by encouraging the establishment of stages to make the intercourse between the different parts of the Union less difficult and expensive than formerly.”  The Post Office, not for the last time, would subsidize improvement in American transportation.

In 1786, Hazard and Congress played the same game.  Hazard complained that stagecoaches were expensive and unreliable, and Congress told him to use them anyway.  And indeed, the switch to coaches had had one happy consequence.  Stagecoaches, with their greater capacity, were more willing than post riders to carry newspapers along with the mail—even for free.  News circulated in the early republic when newspapers were physically carried from one city to another, and the increase in circulation was a boon to an increasingly active press and a politically aware public.

Finally, in 1787, Hazard got his way.  He complained again that the demands of the stagecoach operators were “now to be still more encreased”, and Congress finally, by voice vote (October 15), allowed him to use either stage carriages or horses “as he may judge most expedient and beneficial”.  Hazard promptly restored post riders on the mail route between Boston and New York.

He then discovered the meaning of making “intercourse between the different parts of the Union less difficult and expensive”.  The primary stage operator between Boston and New York, unable to make a profit without the mail subsidy, suspended service.  And the post riders, with nought but their saddle bags, could not and would not carry newspapers for free. 

Stagecoach operators, passengers, and newspaper editors all erupted with fury.  The debate over the Constitution of the United States (COTUS), playing out at twelve separate ratification conventions, was at its height.  “What is the meaning of the new arrangement at the Post-Office which abridges the circulation of newspapers at this momentous crisis?”, one editor wrote.  Even George Washington chimed in from Mount Vernon: “It is extremely to be lamented, that a new arrangement in the Post Office, unfavorable to the circulation of intelligence, should have taken place at the instant when the momentous question of a general government was to come before the people.”

After the COTUS was ratified, the new Congress returned the mail to stagecoaches, and President Washington dismissed Hazard as Postmaster General.  Congress under the COTUS continued to use postal subsidies as a stimulus to new forms of transportation, following and widening the trail that the Confederation Congress had blazed.

Sources: Oliver W. Holmes, Shall Stagecoaches Carry the Mail? – A Debate of the Confederation Period, William and Mary Quarterly, October, 1963; Oliver W. Holmes and Peter T. Rohrbach,  Stagecoach East: Stagecoach Days in the East from the Colonial Period to the Civil War, 1983; Journals of the Continental Congress, Volumes 29 and 33.

Mary Katherine Goddard, Postmaster

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Women did not vote in any state under the Articles of Confederation.  (Women voted in New Jersey just a few years later, from 1797 through 1807.)  Nor did women hold elective office, although nothing in the Articles explicitly forbade it.  Women did hold appointive office, however, and one such, Mary Katherine Goddard, served as the first woman postmaster in the United States.  Her service, and her dismissal, tells us a great deal about the early American Post Office.

 
Mary Katherine Goddard was born, probably in Rhode Island, in 1738.  Her mother Sarah gave Mary and her brother William a classical education in Latin, French, and literature.  The two siblings moved to Philadelphia and then to Baltimore, where they founded newspapers.  While in Philadelphia, William worked closely with Benjamin Franklin, a printer and fellow publisher.

In 1775 the Continental Congress named Franklin as the first Postmaster General.  He hired William Goddard as “Riding Surveyor”, to superintend the expansion of post offices and post roads.  Mary remained in Baltimore and took over sole proprietorship of the Maryland Journal.  Franklin also named Mary as postmaster of Baltimore.  Editors and publishers often doubled as postmasters in the Early Republic.  There was a natural synergy between the positions, as postmasters were usually the first to receive newspapers from other cities and, as publishers, would edit and republish their contents.

In 1776, Congress declared independence.  Publishers throughout the colonies published the Declaration of Independence, but without the names of the signers, who were of course committing treason against the Crown.  In January 1777, Mary Katherine Goddard was the first editor to publish the Declaration in full including the names of the signatories.

Mary’s early years as postmaster were not lucrative.  The postal service was critical to the success of the revolution, but paying customers were few and hard money was scarce.  Goddard later complained that she frequently had to pay post riders out of her own funds, or service would have ceased.  Also, she later noted, the “Emoluments (of the office) were by no means equal to the then high Rent of an Office, or to the Attention required both to receive & forward the Mails.”

William Goddard returned to Baltimore, and in 1784 he forced Mary to yield control over the Maryland Journal.  The relationship between brother and sister deteriorated, and Mary sued William at least five times.

Mary remained, however, as postmaster through the remainder of the Confederation period.  The finances of the Post Office improved under the Confederation, and she no longer complained about spending her own money.  She expanded her business to include a book shop and book bindery, and (like Ben Franklin) published an almanac.

In 1789, George Washington became President.  He dismissed Postmaster General Ebenezer Hazard (see left), and appointed Samuel Osgood in his place.  Osgood in turn dismissed Mary Katharine Goddard, and replaced her with a political ally, John White. 

Osgood gave no reason for the dismissal, although his local representative in Baltimore opined that, due to Post Office reorganization, the position would now require “more travel than a woman could undertake”.  The real reason was most likely that, with an elected President under the COTUS, postmasterships had become prizes in building up a patronage machine.

Neither the citizens of Baltimore, nor Goddard herself, took her dismissal lightly.  More than 200 persons, including the Governor of Maryland, sent a petition to Osgood asking for her reinstatement.  Goddard herself wrote to President Washington.  Since she had “established & continued the Office, at the gloomy Period when it was worth no Person’s Acceptance,” she wrote, she “ought surely to be thought worthy of it, when it became more valuable.”

All was in vain.  Washington and Osgood would not budge.  Mary Katherine Goddard returned to her book selling business.  She retired in 1809 and died in 1816.  She never married.  At her death, she willed her property to and freed her last remaining enslaved servant, Belinda Starling.

Sources: “To George Washington from Mary Katherine Goddard, 23 December 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives; Maryland State Archives, Biographical Series, 2006; National Women’s History Museum web site, www.nwhm.org, accessed 2017

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