The Postal Service Is a Civic Institution, Not a Business

We need to look back to the American Revolution to understand the reasons behind our postal system, and for inspiration for saving it today.

Alexis Madrigal

This week the U.S. Senate is debating the 21st Century Postal Act of 2011, a proposal to reform the U.S. Postal Service and change the way the USPS does business in order to make it more profitable. In December, the Postal Service proposed to cut Saturday delivery, close half of its 500 processing centers around the country and dozens of local post offices, and lay off thousands of workers. The bill under consideration this week would delay closures and require studies to determine how best to proceed with any reductions in delivery. Although those are laudable goals, they will not solve the fundamental problem: Congress assumes that this vital government service will somehow become profitable.

In the midst of a long decline in the volume of mail, the demise of the Postal Service -- at least as a public institution with universal service throughout the United States -- often seems inevitable. Yet the critiques and suggestions offered as solutions for what ails the Postal Service see the problem only in terms of commercial and financial concerns. The circumstances of the Post Office's founding suggest a far broader and more important mission: guaranteeing the sanctity of civic participation and political debate.

During the American Revolution, the post was a crucial point of contention between colonists and the Crown because it was the means for circulating not only correspondence but also newspapers, the lifeblood of intercolonial political cooperation. When British officials threatened the free circulation of news, newspaper publishers led the charge in 1774 to replace the British imperial system with a "Constitutional Post." Without a government structure, the post would be privately funded, but newspaper publishers and allies like the Boston Committee of Correspondence made sure that reliable, safe, and secure circulation of political intelligence was a primary function.

Shortly after Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the Continental Congress took up a post office as one of the earliest institutions of national reach -- making the U.S. Post Office older than the Navy, the Marines, and the Declaration of Independence. Congressional delegates therefore believed that ensuring safe communication throughout the colonies was vital to the colonies' efforts for military, political, and commercial unity.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 saw the operation of information channels as a core function of government: the power "to establish post offices and post roads" is one of the explicitly named grants included among the enumerated powers of Congress. At the same time, new political cleavages within the United States caused tension about the Post Office's role as an impartial circulation mechanism. During the debates over ratification in 1787 and 1788, some antifederalist printers accused the Post Office of suppressing their publications and arguments against the Constitution. William Goddard, the mastermind of the 1774 "Constitutional Post," ominously suggested he would once again start his own postal system. The complaints of Goddard and other printers forced Congress to re-assert that the Post Office would circulate all news and information equally. In 1792, the new Federal Congress confirmed that promise in the first Post Office Act, setting the stage for a massive explosion in the newspaper industry and providing for the circulation of information to the far reaches of the country.

Understanding the core mission of the Post Office -- as part of a communications infrastructure for political debate and civic participation -- should lead us to reframe the questions we ask about the future of the USPS. Making changes to the USPS's structure are clearly necessary in order to ensure its ability to meet its obligations. But the historical context should lead us to ask much larger questions about government's role in protecting the free circulation of information.

In the 18th century, the government committed itself to guaranteeing the free flow of information throughout the nation as part of a project to ensure mass participation in civic life, linking the Post Office with the protection of a free press. The decline in mail volume points to a certain inevitability about the commercial success of the USPS. But more broadly we must carefully consider the value of publicly owned, freely available channels of communication. Should the Post Office cease to exist, we will lose the last public guarantor of free communication in the United States.