History of the United States Postal Service

U.S. Postal Service—the Second Oldest Agency in the U.S.

On July 26, 1775, members of the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, agreed "...that a Postmaster General be appointed for the United States, who shall hold his office at Philadelphia, and shall be allowed a salary of 1,000 dollars per annum..."

That simple statement signaled the birth of the Post Office Department, the predecessor of the United States Postal Service and the second oldest department or agency of the present United States of America.

Colonial Times

In early colonial times, correspondents depended on friends, merchants, and Native Americans to carry messages between the colonies. However, most correspondence ran between the colonists and England, their mother country. It was largely to handle this mail that, in 1639, the first official notice of a postal service in the colonies appeared. The General Court of Massachusetts designated Richard Fairbanks' tavern in Boston as the official repository of mail brought from or sent overseas, in line with the practice in England and other nations to use coffee houses and taverns as mail drops.

Local authorities operated post routes within the colonies. Then, in 1673, Governor Francis Lovelace of New York set up a monthly post between New York and Boston. The service was of short duration, but the post rider's trail became known as the Old Boston Post Road, part of today's U.S. Route 1.

William Penn established Pennsylvania's first post office in 1683. In the South, private messengers—who were usually enslaved people—connected the huge plantations; a hog head of tobacco was the penalty for failing to relay mail to the next plantation.

Central postal organization came to the colonies only after 1691 when Thomas Neale received a 21-year grant from the British Crown for a North American postal service. Neale never visited America. Instead, he appointed Governor Andrew Hamilton of New Jersey as his Deputy Postmaster General. Neale's franchise cost him only 80 cents a year but was no bargain; he died heavily in debt, in 1699, after assigning his interests in America to Andrew Hamilton and another Englishman, R. West.

In 1707, the British Government bought the rights to the North American postal service from West and the widow of Andrew Hamilton. It then appointed John Hamilton, Andrew's son, as Deputy Postmaster General of America. He served until 1721 when he was succeeded by John Lloyd of Charleston, South Carolina.

In 1730, Alexander Spotswood, a former lieutenant governor of Virginia, became Deputy Postmaster General for America. His most notable achievement probably was the appointment of Benjamin Franklin as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737. Franklin was only 31 years old at the time, the struggling printer and publisher of The Pennsylvania Gazette. Later he would become one of the most popular men of his age.

Two other Virginians succeeded Spotswood: Head Lynch in 1739 and Elliot Benger in 1743. When Benger died in 1753, Franklin and William Hunter, postmasters of Williamsburg, Virginia, were appointed by the Crown as Joint Postmasters General for the colonies. Hunter died in 1761, and John Foxcroft of New York succeeded him, serving until the outbreak of the Revolution.

During his time as a Joint Postmaster General for the Crown, Franklin effected many important and lasting improvements in the colonial posts. He immediately began to reorganize the service, setting out on a long tour to inspect post offices in the North and others as far south as Virginia. New surveys were made, milestones were placed on principal roads, and new and shorter routes laid out. For the first time, post riders carried mail at night between Philadelphia and New York, with the travel time shortened by at least half.

In 1760, Franklin reported a surplus to the British Postmaster General—a first for the postal service in North America. When Franklin left office, post roads operated from Maine to Florida and from New York to Canada, and mail between the colonies and the mother country operated on a regular schedule, with posted times. In addition, to regulate post offices and audit accounts, the position of surveyor was created in 1772; this is considered the precursor of today's Postal Inspection Service.

By 1774, however, the colonists viewed the royal post office with suspicion. Franklin was dismissed by the Crown for actions sympathetic to the cause of the colonies. Shortly after, William Goddard, a printer and newspaper publisher (whose father had been postmaster of New London, Connecticut, under Franklin) set up a Constitutional Post for inter-colonial mail service. Colonies funded it by subscription, and net revenues were to be used to improve the postal service rather than to be paid back to the subscribers. By 1775, when the Continental Congress met at Philadelphia, Goddard's colonial post was flourishing, and 30 post offices operated between Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Williamsburg.

Continental Congress 

After the Boston riots in September 1774, the colonies began to separate from the mother country. A Continental Congress was organized at Philadelphia in May 1775 to establish an independent government. One of the first questions before the delegates was how to convey and deliver the mail.

Benjamin Franklin, newly returned from England, was appointed chairman of a Committee of Investigation to establish a postal system. The report of the Committee, providing for the appointment of a postmaster general for the 13 American colonies, was considered by the Continental Congress on July 25 and 26. On July 26, 1775, Franklin was appointed Postmaster General, the first appointed under the Continental Congress; the establishment of the organization that became the United States Postal Service nearly two centuries later traces back to this date. Richard Bache, Franklin's son-in-law, was named Comptroller, and William Goddard was appointed Surveyor.

Franklin served until November 7, 1776. America's present Postal Service descends in an unbroken line from the system he planned and placed in operation, and history rightfully accords him major credit for establishing the basis of the postal service that has performed magnificently for the American people.

Article IX of the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, gave Congress "The sole and exclusive right and power...establishing and regulating post offices from one State to another...and exacting such postage on papers passing through the same as may be requisite to defray the expenses of the said office..." The first three Postmasters General—Benjamin Franklin, Richard Bache, and Ebenezer Hazard—were appointed by, and reported to, Congress.

Postal laws and regulations were revised and codified in the Ordinance of October 18, 1782.

The Post Office Department 

Following the adoption of the Constitution in May 1789, the Act of September 22, 1789 (1 Stat. 70), temporarily established a post office and created the Office of the Postmaster General. On September 26, 1789, George Washington appointed Samuel Osgood of Massachusetts as the first Postmaster General under the Constitution. At that time there were 75 post offices and about 2,000 miles of post roads, although as late as 1780 the postal staff consisted only of a Postmaster General, a Secretary/Comptroller, three surveyors, one Inspector of Dead Letters, and 26 post riders.

The Postal Service was temporarily continued by the Act of August 4, 1790 (1 Stat. 178), and the Act of March 3, 1791 (1 Stat. 218). The Act of February 20, 1792, made detailed provisions for the Post Office. Subsequent legislation enlarged the duties of the Post Office, strengthened and unified its organization, and provided rules and regulations for its development.

Philadelphia was the seat of government and postal headquarters until 1800. When the Post Office moved to Washington, D.C., in that year, officials were able to carry all postal records, furniture, and supplies in two horse-drawn wagons.

In 1829, upon the invitation of President Andrew Jackson, William T. Barry of Kentucky became the first Postmaster General to sit as a member of the President's Cabinet. His predecessor, John McLean of Ohio, began referring to the Post Office, or General Post Office as it was sometimes called, as the Post Office Department, but it was not specifically established as an executive department by Congress until June 8, 1872.

Around this period, in 1830, an Office of Instructions and Mail Depredations was established as the investigative and inspection branch of the Post Office Department. The head of that office, P. S. Loughborough, is considered the first Chief Postal Inspector.

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Bellis, Mary. "History of the United States Postal Service." ThoughtCo, Sep. 14, 2020, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-united-states-postal-service-4076789. Bellis, Mary. (2020, September 14). History of the United States Postal Service. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-united-states-postal-service-4076789 Bellis, Mary. "History of the United States Postal Service." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-united-states-postal-service-4076789 (accessed March 22, 2023).