Today's business-centric view of the mail system stands in contrast to its historical civic mandate

Sunday marked another chapter in the history of the cultural relationship between Boston and New York.

I'm speaking, of course, about the 339th anniversary of the first American mail service. On January 22, 1673, a lone post rider began his journey from the southern tip of Manhattan toward the Bay via Hartford, Connecticut.

We don't know his name, but we know he was a well-conditioned fellow — pretty much the opposite of Postal Employee Newman — tasked not just with carrying letters but also stimulating trade, fortifying defenses and even apprehending fugitives. Tasked, in short, with unifying distinct parts of the growing country.

Admittedly, some of you might have missed this anniversary as you watched New England and New York advance to the Super Bowl. What you probably haven't missed is all the recent talk about the demise of the U.S. postal service. The post office has recently announced its desire to close thousands of local post offices, lay off loads of workers, and end Saturday service, en route to cutting operating costs by around $20 billion before 2015.

The moves come in response to staggering losses suffered the past few years, due in part to the rise of electronic communication and an onerous 2006 law that requires it to pay billions a year into its pension trust. Whatever their source, the numbers aren't pretty:

That figure comes from a working paper published in November [PDF] by postal scholar R. Richard Geddes of Cornell. Geddes makes a compelling argument that the delivery monopoly long held by the post office should end, and that the system should enter a gradual transition toward privatization. "Inefficiencies created by decades of government-enforced monopoly that insulated the Postal Service from competition will be reduced," he writes. In other words, Geddes wants the post office to stop acting like a government agency and start operating like a business.

Geddes looks at the post office from an economic perspective, and as a result, in these fiscally retrained times, his point carries a great deal of weight. From a historical perspective, however, the idea of running the post office like a business is both incredibly recent and also at odds with a civic mandate that dates back to the early days of the republic, argues the Columbia historian and postal author Richard John in a 2008 paper prepared for the post office [PDF]:

For much of U.S. history, there is scant evidence that more than a small minority of Americans wanted the postal system to operate like a business corporation as opposed to the government agency. More than any other single circumstance, it may well be this fact that best explains how it is that the postal monopoly had for so long endured. ...

The eclipse of this civic mandate has been comparatively recent. Not until after 1970 was it challenged in a major way by [what] one might call a market imperative.

As many historians including John have pointed out, the likes of Washington and Madison saw the post office as an essential vehicle of democracy — providing important public information to a vast populace, particularly through the cheap delivery of newspapers. In those days the post office actually made money for the government. But even after the 1830s, when the advent of new communication technology turned the mail into a money-losing institution, lawmakers continued to defend its civic mandate. From 1851 to 1970, John reports, the post office received an appropriation from the treasury nearly every year. Everyone seemed to consent to the system's greater function.

At the core of this mandate was the recognition that distributing information to the entire country meant serving remote areas as well as dense cities. In fact Congress made bold moves to keep private competitors from infringing on the urban postal facilities that subsidized the rural service. After the panic of 1837, for instance, private carriers began to undercut the government mail in the Washington-Boston corridor. In response Congress enacted a law in 1845 that decreased the cost of postage so dramatically that private carriers couldn't compete.

Similar efforts were soon made to ensure free home delivery by the post office. Before the Civil War, the mail system linked places, not homes. Most people still traveled on foot to pick up the mail from the local post office. Private carriers provided home delivery in major cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, but in 1861 lawmakers banned this intra-city private service as well. That made home delivery free to everyone in big cities, and after the Civil War people in remote parts of the country wanted some parity with urban postal facilities, which they received in 1896 with the enactment of Rural Free Delivery service.

Lawmakers continued to defend the tenets of the civic mandate into the 20th century. The Postal Policy Act of 1958, for instance, emphasized that the post office had always been a public service - a means to promote the "social, cultural, intellectual, and commercial intercourse" of all Americans - and as such should be assisted by the general treasury. Only in 1970, with the transformation of the post office into the U.S. Postal Service, did a business-centered model creep into the discussion. With that a service that had followed a civic course since 1792 turned onto an economic path, Richard John argues:

If current trends continue, it is likely that postal policy henceforth will be increasingly subjected to the same kinds of cost-benefit analysis that has come to exert such a pervasive influence on corporate planning. Such an exercise raises the distinct possibility that certain benefits that Americans have traditionally obtained from the postal system will be ignored, since they are hard to quantify, and, thus, to measure.

That "distinct possibility" has now become a reality. As the New York Times pointed out earlier this month, the loudest opposition to post office shutdowns is coming from small towns. These residents see the mail as both a democratic privilege and a civic lifeline; they "fear that places that began with post office buildings would simply cease to exist with their departure," the Times reports.

At the same time, the postal system clearly must modernize in response to the digital age, lest its debt grow so large that we begin to hear word "bailout." As our own Nate Berg recently wrote, the service is considering a revival of the Village Post Office system to increase local business. That response seems a bit too antebellum for my taste; I'd rather see remote post offices convert some of their space into Internet hotspots - offering, for a fee, the types of digital services that small-town residents say they can't access with the same facility urban dwellers do.

Whichever way it chooses to go, the postal system needs to recognize that it stands not just at the crossroads of profit and loss, but also of economy and history.

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