Postal Service Act

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Postal Service Act
Great Seal of the United States
Enacted bythe 2nd United States Congress
Statutes at LargeStat. 232
Legislative history

The Postal Service Act was a piece of United States federal legislation that established the United States Post Office Department. It was signed into law by President George Washington on February 20, 1792.[1]


William Goddard, a Patriot printer frustrated that the royal postal service was unable to reliably deliver his Pennsylvania Chronicle to its readers or deliver critical news for the paper to Goddard, laid out a plan for the "Constitutional Post" before the Continental Congress on October 5, 1774.[2] Congress waited to act on the plan until after the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Benjamin Franklin promoted Goddard's plan and was appointed as the first postmaster general under the Continental Congress beginning on July 26, 1775,[3] nearly one year before the Congress declared independence from the British Crown. Franklin's son-in-law, Richard Bache, took over the position on November 7, 1776, when Franklin became an American emissary to France.

Franklin had already made a significant contribution to the postal service in the colonies while serving as the postmaster of Philadelphia from 1737 and as joint postmaster general of the colonies from 1753 to 1774. He was dismissed as colonial postmaster general after the publication of private letters of Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson in Massachusetts; Franklin admitted to acquiring the letters (probably from a third party, and not in any sort of official capacity) and sending them to Massachusetts. While postmaster, Franklin streamlined postal delivery with properly surveyed and marked routes from Maine to Florida (the origins of Route 1), instituted overnight postal travel between the critical cities of New York and Philadelphia and created a standardized rate chart based upon weight and distance.[4]

Samuel Osgood held the postmaster general's position in New York City from 1789, when the U.S. Constitution came into effect, until the government moved to Philadelphia in 1791. Timothy Pickering took over [5] and, about a year later, the Postal Service Act gave his post greater legislative legitimacy and more effective organization. Pickering continued in the position until 1795, when he briefly served as secretary of war, before becoming the third U.S. secretary of state.

Because news was considered crucial to an informed electorate, the 1792 law distributed newspapers to subscribers for 1 penny up to 100 miles and 1.5 cents over 100 miles; printers could send their newspapers to other newspaper publishers for free. Postage for letters, by contrast, cost between 6 and 25 cents depending on distance.[6] This subsidy amounted to roughly 0.2 percent of US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to McChesney and Nichols.[7]

The postmaster general's position was considered a plum patronage post for political allies of the president until the Postal Service was transformed into a corporation run by a board of governors in 1971 following passage of the Postal Reorganization Act.[8]


JD Thomas said the Postal Service Act was shaped in part by the desire to avoid censorship employed by the Crown to try to suppress their political opponents in colonial times. He also claimed that "the promise of mail delivery [helped] grow the nation and economy instead of serving only existing communities." He illustrated its importance to people on the frontier by discussing the role of mail in the lives of people around Royalton, NY. Before they got a post office in 1826, "The neighbors would club together, put a boy on a horse, and about once a month he could be seen wending his way through forest and stream, ... to get, perchance, half a dozen letters and papers for four times that number of families. ... [W]hen he returned, if no tidings came from loved ones, they did their best to suppress the silent tears that would often betray their sadness."[9][10]

Researchers have claimed that the widespread availability of newspapers contributed to a high literacy rate in the US.[11][12] This in turn helped increase the rate of economic growth,[13] thereby contributing to its dominant position in the international economy today.

Further reading[edit]

  • John, Richard R. (2009). Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674039148.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "February 20, 1792: George Washington signs the Postal Service Act". The History Channel / This Day In History. Archived from the original on February 27, 2009. Retrieved January 20, 2008.
  2. ^ Smithsonian Postal Museum
  3. ^ "Editorial Note on the Founding of the Post Office". Founders Online. University of Virginia Press. Retrieved 2021-03-24.
  4. ^ US
  5. ^ Biographical Directory of the U.S.Congress
  6. ^ Historian, United States Postal Service (1 June 2010), Postage Rates for Periodicals: A Narrative History, United States Postal Service, Wikidata Q112167199
  7. ^ McChesney, Robert W.; Nichols, John (2016), People get ready: The fight against a jobless economy and a citizenless democracy, Nation Books, p. 169, ISBN 9781568585215
  8. ^ "July 26, 1775: Congress establishes U.S. Post Office". The History Channel / This Day In History. Archived from the original on February 26, 2009. Retrieved January 20, 2008.
  9. ^ Thomas, JD (2011-02-11). "The Postal Act: A Free Press, Personal Privacy and National Growth". Accessible Archives. Retrieved 2016-05-22.
  10. ^ Thomas said that the nearest post office was in Batavia, roughly 20 miles (33 km) away. It's not clear how long that took, but Rodrigue said, "The average overland speed by horse ... was around 8 kilometers per hour." If that was typical of that Royalton, NY, community, then this mail procedure might have taken three days: The boy could have collected the letters on the first day and spent the night with the family closest to Batavia on the first day. The second day could include eight hours riding to and from Batavia. On the third day, he would revisit the families from the first day. Rodrigue, Jean-Paul (2013). "2. Historical Geography of Transportation: The Emergence of Mechanized Systems". The Geography of Transport Systems. NY: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-82254-1. Retrieved 2016-05-22.
  11. ^ Soltow, Lee; Stevens, Edward (1981). The Rise of Literacy and the Common School in the United States: A Socioeconomic Analysis to 1870. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. pp. 76, 155–159.
  12. ^ Cited from "Universal Service and the Postal Monopoly: A Brief History". US Postal Service. October 2008. Retrieved 2016-05-22.
  13. ^ Hanushek, Eric A.; Woessmann, Ludger (2010). Brewer, Dominic J.; McEwan, Patrick J. (eds.). Education and Economic Growth. Amsterdam: Elsevier. pp. 60–67. Retrieved 2016-05-22.