Ted Widmer, a professor at the Macaulay Honors College, discusses how “The Postal Service is the Most American Thing We’ve Got”
May 15th, 2020
It would be difficult to think of a time when we have depended more on the United States Postal Service. With tens of millions of Americans quarantined in their homes, the steady delivery of checks, letters, food, and medical supplies is a lifeline.
That goes especially for the elderly, the sick, and the poor, the people most affected by the virus. They have limited access to laptops and phones, so Zoom is not an option for them. For these citizens, the sight of a blue uniform six days a week reminds that their government is there for them.
Strangely, that same government is trying to undermine one of its most effective instruments. President Trump has dismissed the Postal Service as “a joke,” and last week he named Louis DeJoy, a major Republican Party donor with no experience in the agency, as his next postmaster general, replacing a lifelong postal employee.
The president has also demanded that the Postal Service quadruple its shipping prices, motivated in part, it seems, by the desire to hurt one of its big users, Amazon. Mr. Trump’s drive to raise prices dovetails with the desire by many Republicans to either force the service to privatize or at least undercut it in favor of private shippers like FedEx.
If prices are quadrupled, it will briefly inconvenience Amazon, which will simply pass on the expenses to its customers. But for the Americans most reliant on home delivery, this will come as a heavy new tax. At the same time, the service is in financial trouble; without major new funding, the service will run out of money in September, well before the November election — whose success may depend on a huge mail-in effort.
The Postal Service was never supposed to be a moneymaking enterprise or a political football. The founders understood that the reliable delivery of information was basic to democracy.
In 1775, even before this country came into existence, the Continental Congress asked Benjamin Franklin to organize a postal system for the 13 colonies at war with a distant empire. George Washington deepened that commitment when he became president.
In 1792, he and James Madison pushed an act through Congress establishing a national system of post offices and post roads. The legislation specifically set a low rate for newspapers, so that Americans could learn about the issues of the day. As Washington wrote in his annual message of 1791, a strong postal system was essential to democracy, and would help to spread “a knowledge of the laws and proceedings of the government.”
In the years that followed, Europeans marveled at the efficiency of the American system. Alexis de Tocqueville noted an “astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers” everywhere he went. In good times and bad, the mail went out, to all of the country’s far-flung citizens. Even after the Civil War broke out, Abraham Lincoln insisted that the U.S. mail be delivered throughout the seceded states. So it was, for nearly two months, until the Confederacy established its own system, and broke off this last connection. Immodestly, Jefferson Davis created a stamp with his own image on it.
Many of the earliest letter carriers were wounded Civil War veterans, grateful for a chance to work.
In the winter of 1862, a Cleveland postal clerk named Joseph W. Briggs felt sorry for the women he saw waiting in long lines in the cold for letters from the front and proposed that letter carriers deliver the mail to people’s homes. Before that, Americans picked up their mail in person at the local post office.
Briggs’s idea was approved, and “free city delivery” spread across the North. To help, cities and towns named all of their streets and created numbered addresses for each domicile, including the most modest apartments. As Lincoln understood, the Union included all of these homes, each of which was contributing in its way. They deserved their mail.
Thousands were needed to carry out free city delivery, and the postal workforce boomed. Many of the earliest letter carriers were wounded veterans, grateful for a chance to work. By hiring those who had given so much for their country, the Lincoln administration signaled that veterans could expect their country to look out for them — an important precedent for future veterans programs, as well as the New Deal.
Letter carriers took a pledge to act with courtesy toward all Americans. Their blue uniforms, introduced in 1868, were a pro-American statement. So was the idea that any place in the Union could be reached by these hearty mail carriers, carrying sacks of up to 75 pounds.
The Postal Service helped to heal the country by uniting North and South into one system again, and the introduction of rural free delivery in 1896 connected farm families to the wider world. The mail even facilitated immigration, allowing young migrants to let relatives know their whereabouts. In 1889, more than 87 million letters were sent between the United States and Europe. Letter carriers delivered the mail through the 1918 flu pandemic and every other crisis of the 20th century.
This rich tradition remains a source of pride for postal employees. The Postal Service has also strengthened democracy in a quieter way, through its commitment to diversity — 39 percent of its employees are people of color, and 40 percent are women.
Americans may be living apart, by necessity; but it does not necessarily follow that we must be so divided. Thanks to our letter carriers, we are not. They show up every day, binding Americans together, as Lincoln hoped they would. Every delivery is a small act of union.
The slogan on the old Farley Post Office building in New York proclaims these words: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” They were added by one of the building’s architects, William Mitchell Kendall, who found the lines in Herodotus. Awkwardly, they describe the efficiency of the Persian couriers, whose descendants now populate Iran — an argument that may not win friends in the Trump administration.
But if that inscription does not suit, there is another one close to the White House and the Capitol, easily read from the street, that reminds us of how much we get from our mail. The old Washington Post Office is now the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, close to Union Station. The inscription over its west entrance asserts that a letter carrier is not only the “consoler of the lonely,” but the “enlarger of the common life.” Common life endures, even in a crisis, like Washington, Lincoln, and other presidents instinctively understood. Despite the president’s claims, the Postal Service is no joke.
Ted Widmer is a professor at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York and the author, most recently, of “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.”