Some Americans may be aware that Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general of the United States, appointed by the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. But, unfortunately, our history lessons have otherwise overlooked the Post Office’s contribution to the development of the nation.
A new paper entitled Postal Service Contributions to National Infrastructure describes some of the ways the Postal Service was used to support national infrastructure growth. For example, did you know?
- In the early years of the nation, highly subsidized newspaper rates led to the growth of a national media culture.
- Funding to transport mail supported a stagecoach industry that carried passengers across the nation. This model was later repeated in the early airline industry when mail contracts supported passenger air transportation.
- The start of rural free delivery at the turn of the 20th century forced farmers and communities to improve the condition of rural roads as a condition of service.
In these ways, the Post Office Department helped conquer the great distances of the country, fill infrastructure gaps, buoy burgeoning technologies and industries, and bind the nation together.
Postal policy decisions also generated important debates about the appropriate roles of the government and the private sector. In the 1840s, a new age of low postal rates and two-way communications was initiated in part because of private sector competition to the monopoly, and the United States was a latecomer to Parcel Post compared to other nations because of concern by the railroads and small rural stores over the incursion into their areas of business.
By the 1960s, the Post Office was struggling with inefficiency and a large deficit. The President’s Commission on Postal Organization (known as the Kappel Commission) argued that the Post Office should run more like a business. Since then, the Postal Service’s secondary role in contributing to the expansion of the national infrastructure has lessened.
Today, the decentralized and fragmented nature of the digital age may be creating new infrastructure gaps and under-served citizens. Is there again a place for the Postal Service in serving the nation’s infrastructure needs? Or is the Postal Service’s role of supporting new infrastructures behind it? What do you think?