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The Postal Clause was added to the Constitution to facilitate interstate communication and prevent a Federal transportation monopoly from repeating the defects of the King's transportation monopoly, as well as to create a source of revenue for the early United States.
Federalist Papers #45 explains the divided sovereignty relative to "post Roads" and "internal order, improvements:" “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”
There were some early disagreements as to the boundaries of the Postal Power. John Jay, in a letter to George Washington, opined that the postal service should not be burdened with the responsibility for handling newspaper delivery, and also suggested that the Post Office be placed under the supervision of the executive branch (a suggestion which later led to the creation of the Post Office Department). Thomas Jefferson feared that the postal service would become a source of patronage and a waste of money. Jefferson also expressed doubt at granting Congress the power to designate post roads, as he considered road building to be a state responsibility.
President Madison's veto of Mar 3, 1817 clearly states the limitations of Article 1, Section 8 and the "post Roads" restriction: "Having considered the bill this day presented to me entitled 'An act to set apart and pledge certain funds for internal improvements,' and which sets apart and pledges funds 'for constructing roads and canals, and improving the navigation of water courses' . . . I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling the bill with the Constitution of the United States to return it with that objection to the House of Representatives. The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers."
The Clause has been construed to give Congress the enumerated power to designate mail routes and construct or designate post offices, with the implied authority to carry, deliver, and regulate the mails of the United States as a whole. An early controversy was whether Congress had the power to actually build post roads and post offices, or merely designate which lands and roads were to be used for this purpose, and to what extent that power could be delegated to the Postmaster General. The U.S. Supreme Court construed the power narrowly during the early part of the 19th century, holding that the power consisted mostly of designation of roads and sites, but gradually gave way later on, allowing appropriation of land for postal purposes.
The Postal Power also includes the power to designate certain materials as nonmailable, and to pass statutes criminalizing abuses of the postal system (such as mail fraud and armed robbery of post offices). This power has been used by Congress and the Postmaster General to exclude obscene materials from the mails, beginning with an act in 1872 to ban lottery circulars from the mails, as well as the Comstock laws in 1873. These attempts at limiting the content of the mails were upheld by the Supreme Court, but in the 20th century, the Court took a more assertive approach in striking down postal laws which limited free expression, particularly as it related to political materials. The First Amendment thus provided a check on the Postal Power.
- Records of the Federal Convention
- Commentaries on Blackstone by St. George Tucker
- Madison, James. "Alleged Danger From the Powers of the Union to the State Governments Considered". Federalist Papers. Independent Journal. Retrieved 26 January 1788.
- Letter from John Jay to George Washington, 21 September 1788
- Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 6 March 1796
- Minutes of House of Representatives debate on the Post Office Bill, 6 December 1791
- Analysis and Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, from the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress (hosted by Justia.com)
- Hall, Kermit L. ed. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, Second Edition. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-511883-9 pp. 765-766.
- Resources on the Postal Clause, from The Founder's Constitution project at the University of Chicago