The Postal Service : Throughline The US Postal Service has played a role throughout American history - from the Declaration of Independence to today's mail-in voting. It was conceived of by the founders as the way to create a united, informed and effective American democracy. But today, the postal service's future is in danger. How the postal service created the United States and the case for this pivotal institution.
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The Postal Service

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The Postal Service

The Postal Service

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RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

OK, so a few months ago one of our producers came in and was super-excited to talk about something - the Postal Service.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

To be honest, we really weren't that excited or interested in talking about the Postal Service. You know, it's something that, like, neither of us really thought about, right? Who spends time doing that?

ABDELFATAH: I mean, not me.

(LAUGHTER)

ABDELFATAH: But we started reading up on the history, and we were like, you know what? There's something here. So we decided to talk to someone who has thought a lot about the Postal Service.

WINIFRED GALLAGHER: I am Winifred Gallagher. I am a journalist. My book is called "How The Post Office Created America."

ARABLOUEI: The interview was super-interesting, but, you know, we didn't really do anything with it. But then this happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: New policies at the U.S. Postal Service are causing backlogs, and workers warn mail-in ballots for November's election could be impacted.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Hundreds of post boxes taken off the streets, mail-sorting machines taken offline, overflowing mail bins and reports that worker overtime has been cut.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Postmaster General Louis DeJoy defended his moves to remove mail-sorting machines and cut overtime as cost-cutting measures and claims his decisions have nothing to do with voting.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The Democrat-led House of Representatives approved sending $25 billion to the U.S. Postal Service and block any operational changes that could delay mail this November. President Trump says he will veto the legislation if the bill passes in the Republican-led Senate.

ABDELFATAH: The reality is this controversy didn't start a month ago. It's been building for decades. And despite that, the Postal Service processes and delivers 181.9 million pieces of mail every day across the U.S. And fun fact - the Postal Service has a 91% approval rating. That's the highest of any government agency, a spot it consistently holds.

ARABLOUEI: And it's probably because the Postal Service has been a consistent part of American life since even before the United States was founded. When we come back, Winifred Gallagher is going to tell us the story of the Postal Service and why it matters so much today.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAFAEL MONTERROSA: This is Rafael Monterrosa (ph) from San Francisco, Calif., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: Winifred Gallagher started thinking about the role of the post office because...

GALLAGHER: For 15 years, I've more or less commuted between New York City and a little cowboy town in Wyoming.

ARABLOUEI: She spoke to us from that little cowboy town - Dubois, Wyo. And she said that taking that trip so often gave her...

GALLAGHER: A lot of time to think about what linked one half of the country to the other half of the country. And it was the Post Office.

ARABLOUEI: Can you describe how the founders thought about the postal system and why it was such an important part of the nation from the beginning in terms of being able to connect...

GALLAGHER: Sure.

ARABLOUEI: ...Different parts of the colonies that then became a country, a nation?

GALLAGHER: Well, the Post Office was really woven into America's DNA by Benjamin Franklin. He was, of course, a Founding Father but also our first postmaster general. His earlier experience of running the primitive mail system that linked Great Britain's 13 colonies gave him the managerial skills. But much more important, it also convinced him that these 13 very quarrelsome little fiefdoms would be far more powerful together than apart.

The patriots' first concerted act included the creation of underground communications networks that enabled them to conspire under the British radar. The first was called the Committees Of Correspondence and then The Constitutional Post. These informal networks were the thing that linked Thomas Jefferson and Sam Adams and the other revolutionaries, enabled them to talk treason. But they were also not just the incubators of the new Post Office Department, as it would be called, which was established in 1775, but of the United States government itself. You could argue that the first U.S. government was really an information and communications network.

ABDELFATAH: Wow. So...

GALLAGHER: So...

ABDELFATAH: It makes sense that it was super-important to the founders, right? It was partly the reason why the country was able to be created, it sounds like - I mean, information and...

GALLAGHER: That's right.

ABDELFATAH: ...Communication.

GALLAGHER: That's right. It was the nervous system of the Republic, the early Republic. And the same people who ran these communications networks ended up running the government. Things changed a lot in 1792 because Benjamin Rush and James Madison - I mean, these guys were political philosophers. They weren't just, like, some guys. They were very impressive intellectuals in their own right. They realized that a democracy - if it's going to work, it requires knowledgeable voters.

So they decided that they would use their new postal network to create an informed electorate. And this is really crucial. They devised this kind of Robin Hood scheme that used the very costly postage for letter mail. Then, most people didn't even get one letter a year. They were mostly sent by businessmen and lawyers. So they sold these businessmen on their letter mail, and that money subsidized mailing cheap, uncensored newspapers to every citizen.

This was considered wildly radical in Europe. In Europe, the governing powers didn't want the people to know what was going on. So this really very enlightened postal policy is the thing that really sparked America's very lively, disputatious political culture, which we see every day, and also made us the global communications and information superpower of the world with amazing speed.

ARABLOUEI: So basically, given the speed of the information that was being shared, how did this sort of change the trajectory of the country in those early years?

GALLAGHER: Well, the post mandate to deliver the news throughout a very rapidly expanding country - it was already moving west over the Appalachians - that very quickly organized the country's physical and social landscape around post offices that were connected by post roads. In order to get the newspapers to the people, the Department had to jumpstart a transportation industry. There was no way to get from point A to point B until the post office started paying, initially, horseback riders and stagecoaches to deliver the mail as quickly as possible.

So by the time de Tocqueville came to America in 1831, the system already had - our mail system already had twice as many post offices as Great Britain and five times more than his own France. He was astonished at how quickly it developed. Of course, most newspapers then had no way to distribute themselves widely other than the mail. I mean, if you had a newspaper, you could sell whatever you could sell on the street corner. But to have, like, a more wide distribution, you depended on the post office.

Part of the mandate to create an informed electorate also led the post to have very low prices for mailing books and magazines, which still exist today. If you're mailing somebody a book, always write book rate on the front. You pay, like, less than half. And in a country, a lot of which was agrarian for, you know, well, well, well into the 20th century, this business of sending magazines and books very cheap throughout the country really amounted to what was for a lot of people an informal educational system, sort of like a secondary educational system where people really learned about what - they got the National Geographic, and they got, you know, Ladies Home Journal to learn about health. And this was really the way people kept themselves informed and educated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: But it wasn't all success in the early days of the post office. Coming up, the new Postal Service stumbles and nearly falls.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANJURI FASAT: Hi. My name is Manjuri Fasat (ph). I'm from Williamsport, Pa., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: So, I mean, it sounds kind of like this project - right? - the Postal Service project that the Founding Fathers set in motion right at the beginning of the creation of the country was, like, remarkably successful, right? Like, it was helping to circulate, you know, newspapers and, I guess, you know, helping that industry grow as well. It sounds kind of like a pretty ideal story. But I'm just wondering, like, is there a flipside side to that? Like, was it all just, like, good news for the Postal Service in those days?

GALLAGHER: Well, no. The worst crisis that the post office ever experienced was actually in the 1840s, which is kind of an interesting story because everybody's talking about the crisis now. Back in the 1840s, the post office almost went out of business because people got annoyed with the high cost of letter mail. People were better-educated. They had things like paper and pens, and they wanted to be like the people in England. They wanted to be able to send mail frequently. So they revolted, and they started patronizing private mail carriers that competed with the post, charged much less than the post for carrying letters. So Congress had its back to the wall and had to enact some very important reforms, one of which was reducing letter postage to mere pennies. It was, I think, 3 cents.

Then Congress authorized America's first wildly popular, convenient stamps so that people didn't have to go to the post office and have - with each letter and have it made and yadda, yadda, yadda. So this was - it doesn't sound like much to us today, but at the time, it was like email. It was - all of a sudden, people had cheap, speedy correspondence. Sometimes, if you were on a railroad line, you could even have a same-day reply. You could invite a friend in one city for dinner and get his or her reply that afternoon and make your meal.

It profoundly changed America's personal relationships. People could have these long-distance relationships that didn't cost a fortune. This aspect of it became especially important during the Great Migration to the West, which was happening, you know, starting in the late '40s, really bloomed after the Civil War. But the only way people who left the farm, you know, in Ohio and ended up in the Washington territory - the only way they had to stay in touch was through the mail, through letters. So this became a really important way of keeping the East Coast and the West Coast connected. And to get that job done, the post had to subsidize stagecoaches, boats and, eventually, the transcontinental railroad to connect those two coasts together and to allow people to communicate and the economy to communicate.

I mean, bear in mind, after - the gold rush changed everything. For most of our history, America was just this little band along the East Coast and into the South. It was kind of a narrow, relatively narrow band. But all of a sudden, in 1848, you had the gold rush. You had the end of the Mexican-American War that brought us the whole Southwest and the incorporation of the Oregon Territory. All of a sudden, we had this huge country. And how are you going to connect those two pieces together? I mean, this is what I mean when I say the post office created America. It really did forge those two halves of America together.

Cheap letters were also important, of course, during the Civil War. It was the only way that soldiers had a way to keep in touch with their loved ones. But Montgomery Blair, who was Abraham Lincoln's really brilliant postmaster general, as brilliant executives do, saw the Civil War - the crisis of the Civil War as an opportunity to improve mail service, especially since he didn't have to pay for the services throughout the South.

So he had some money to spend, and he expanded the very fast railway mail service, started the first safe money order so that the troops could send their salaries home to their families. I mean, bear in mind until then, the only way you could send money or valuables or a will or anything like that - jewelry - was to put it in the mail and hope it got there, you know, hope no one stole it. So money orders were a game-changer. And he also established home delivery in the cities. So previously, people had to go to their local general post office and pick up their mail. Now people got their mail delivered to them in the cities.

ARABLOUEI: So in that time of crisis that was the Civil War, the Postal Service innovated, it sounds like. You would think naturally that, you know, the country splitting in half essentially and there being a massive, bloody war - it would put the Postal Service at risk. But it sounds like, no, they actually innovated and tried new things.

GALLAGHER: Yeah. He really pivoted and used it as an opportunity to modernize the services. Again, as I said, he didn't have to pay for the South. So, you know, he had some latitude there. During the war, Lincoln actually let the mail be delivered in the South for, I think, about two months before he finally stopped it. And the South had to start its own post office. Both sides had to reissue - completely reissue new stamps in the South because they didn't have any in the North because they didn't want old stamps to be used as money by Southerners. So there was a lot of action in the philatelic world just trying to get stamps that jived with what was going on with politics.

ABDELFATAH: So after the Civil War, this is, like, an incredibly dramatic moment for the country. You now have - right? - a whole group of people who are now free. And one of the things that I would just love to get your take on is, from this point on, it seems like the Postal Service creates opportunities for African Americans, for women, for people who, over the next hundred years, would start to get their rights. And so I'm just wondering, from your perspective, what you see as some of the real important inflection points.

GALLAGHER: It's still - everybody who goes to the post office, rich or poor, Black or white, you're just buying your stamp. So it always has been very much of an equalizer. Interestingly, women in particular have done well during wars. During a war, all the men are away fighting, and the post office needs somebody to handle the mail. So even during the Revolutionary War, women were very active in postal services and were complimented on their patriotism for keeping that up. The same is true during Western migration. The men were just too busy, and there weren't - there just weren't enough men to do all the jobs that needed doing. So women got a lot of opportunities in the West to serve as postmasters.

This was certainly also true during the Civil War. Montgomery Blair had women working right in the federal headquarters in Washington, D.C., which was considered quite entree at the time. They were very important in the dead letter office where all the mail that got lost en route would go. And these very intelligent women would try to figure out, and often did figure out, where the stuff was supposed to go from these very vestigial little addresses. And after the Civil War, in terms of the Republicans' policy of Reconstruction, the post was the first major institution really to employ large numbers of African Americans in all capacities, including in executive roles. They weren't just letter carriers.

Bear in mind that the post office was the federal government's most important function from the Declaration of Independence until World War I. It was the most important thing the federal government did, the biggest thing the federal government did. In fact, it really was the federal government the way most people experienced it. Most people - if you were in Indiana or New Mexico, your postmaster, who was a federal employee - that was the closest you got to the federal government. So the fact that this enormous institution employed both women and African Americans was really a game-changer for both of those groups and is still a major employer of both of those groups.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Coming up, the post office adapts again, this time as the century turns and the inequality in America grows.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILL: This is Will (ph), and I'm from Addison, Texas. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: In 1889 John Wanamaker was named postmaster general. He was kind of an odd fit. The very wealthy creator of a wildly popular department store, Wanamaker was nonetheless critical of the industrial robber barons who had amassed their vast fortunes often through monopolies. In the post office, Winifred Gallagher says John Wanamaker - her favorite postmaster general, by the way - saw a way the government could help level the playing field for everyday Americans.

GALLAGHER: The post office's golden age really was overlapped with the progressive era, which lasted from 1890 to World War I. Early on in that process, Wanamaker picked up on the discontent that average Americans were experiencing. They wanted the federal government to protect them from the Industrial Revolution and economic injustices, the robber barons that they - people were looking to the federal government for economic protection from, you know, all kinds of abuses. But robber barons were, you know, dripping with diamonds and sailing around on yachts, and a lot of the farmers and mineworkers and average people couldn't even make ends meet. So Wanamaker was eager to defend democracy from these rapacious monopolies, so he laid the foundations for the great turn of the century postal innovations like rural free delivery and parcel post.

You have to realize America was still largely mostly agrarian until 1900. Those people did not have free delivery of mail. They had to go - often walk or ride a horse - to a post office a couple miles away. They were very cut off from mainstream society, and they particularly suffered in terms of getting consumer goods. They basically had to pay for whatever the little general store in their town wanted to charge for a pair of boots or a woodstove or whatever it was they needed. They had no recourse. And after rural free delivery and parcel post, they could get goods delivered to their door for a fair price. You know, before parcel post, the monopolies would deliver the goods for you and charge, you know, like, many times what parcel post charged.

So these two things - being able to get books and magazines and letters every day and being able to order goods from the new consumer catalog - just really kind of integrated agrarian Americans into the mainstream society, which was an enormous boon for them. There's a lot of testimonials to how people who felt very isolated and cut off - it just was, like, a whole new ballgame for them when they could be part of the communication structure.

He also laid the groundwork for something that you hear a lot about today. At a time when banks ignored the needs of many average citizens, people, you know, couldn't get - just like today, they couldn't get checking accounts or anything. The banks just wanted to deal with the well-off. The post office provided basic financial services to average people. And this was - did particularly well during the Great Depression where you could do simple banking at your post office. So this is something that people - my senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, is trying to get the post office to start up postal savings again.

ABDELFATAH: Winifred, you spend a lot of time, obviously, thinking about, writing about the post office. And, you know, on those, like, long rides to Wyoming, you were thinking about it. I guess I'm wondering, you know, for someone listening today in the present context, why do you think this story matters to Americans today? And what would you want them to take away from understanding the role it had in creating the country?

GALLAGHER: I think just that. The post office did arguably create this country and create our political culture. There are good days and bad days, but we do have this extraordinary freedom of information and communications that's kind of made us who we are. I think - there are three possibilities going forward, actually, I think. You'll hear people say, oh, the post should be privatized. That's not a popular position. Most people are - love the post office. And they don't see why they should have to give it up just for the sake of privatizing it.

The other possibility is that there could be a massive federal investment to retrofit the post office for the digital age. I think that is politically implausible because it's very hard to get funding for anything these days other than the military, I guess. But that is something. In the 1980s, the post office really dropped the ball. The post office could have and should have seen that the transition was going to be from paper mail to electronic mail. And it just didn't have the nerve and lacked the congressional leadership to make that decision, which is really tragic. But that's water under the bridge.

I think the likeliest compromise - we need to preserve the nation's very enviable communications infrastructure. But, I mean, imagine - because it goes to every address in America six days a week. That's an extraordinary faculty that a lot of countries don't have. So you could preserve it by cutting unnecessary services such as Saturday letter mail - which no one wants except, you know, the postal labor unions and the advertisers - and improving the profitable ones, notably delivery of important hardcopy documents and parcels. I mean, as we all know, right now during our health crisis, parcels are very important. And I think in these uncertain times, it's hard to overstate the value of a delivery system that can reach every house with potentially urgently needed materials, including stimulus checks and voting forms, to say nothing of medical tests and drugs as well as regular mail.

So I think it is an excellent time for people to think about the value of this system - and we've kept it for 240 years - and also to remember that the post almost went out of business in the 1840s. And then when it went on to have its golden age, it started doing things that didn't - people never thought the post office would do. So I think if you look at it from a historical perspective, it really is time to give it a good think before you tamper with it too much.

ARABLOUEI: Winifred, thank you so much for your time. It was really fun to talk to you.

GALLAGHER: I enjoyed it.

ABDELFATAH: Winifred Gallagher is a journalist and author of the book "How The Post Office Created America."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Camille Smiley and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ABDELFATAH: And I want to take a quick second to shoutout a new short doc from NPR's video team about the March on Washington. They talked to six people who were at the march in 1963 and asked them a bunch of questions - stuff like, does it feel like history is repeating itself? Do they expect their grandchildren to return to Washington in half a century? It's a great video. Check it out at youtube.com/npr.

ARABLOUEI: If you like something you heard or you have an idea for an episode, please write us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter at @ThroughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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