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Professor in Cornell University.

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It is not easy to overemphasize the difficulty of transmitting news and information throughout the United States in the years immediately following the adoption of the Constitution. The necessity of providing means of communication in the older districts, east of the Allegheny Mountains, for purposes of business and social convenience, was but one phase of the problem. Thousands had migrated to the interior, far from the customary route of trade and travel through the seaboard cities, and to bring these interior districts into communication with the older areas of settlement was a political as well as a social and economic necessity. This was especially true of the region west of the mountains, where the people were thought to be wavering in their loyalty to the new Government. It was understood that without public and regular means of conveyance newspapers could not penetrate that distant region nor could a local press develop there. Without this aid in bringing about a better understanding of the purposes of the National Government it was feared that the people of the West would be influenced by intriguers and demagogues and that tendencies toward separation might be increased rather than diminished.1

It is the purpose of this paper to point out the political services of the posts in the early years of the constitutional period with special reference to the assistance rendered in the circulation of newspapers and in the development of a local press in the western States and Territories.

Prior to the Revolution the post roads were limited in extent and importance. The post office was regarded as a source of revenue to the Crown, and in accordance with this theory post roads had been established only where they were profitable. At the close of the colonial period, therefore, they extended from Maine to Georgia, connecting the principal commercial centers on the Atlantic sea

1 Memoirs of Rufus Putnam, 394. Putnam's letter to Pickering, Aug. 30, 1794, illustrates the point.

2 Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, in Works, ed. Bigelow, I, 241-242; A. M. Ogilvie, "The rise of the English post office," in Economic Journal, III, 443. The net revenues of the British post office from 1754 to 1773 amounted to about £250,000. this sum about £3,000 a year was contributed by the American posts.


board. Little had been done toward establishing cross posts to the interior, and until 1788 no cross post was extended beyond the mountains for the accommodation of the settlers in the western country.2

With the inauguration of the new Government, in 1789, the post office almost immediately assumed a larger importance. It was understood that the success of the Union would depend in some measure upon the spread of information throughout the land. An interest in the new Government was to be created and maintained, and to this end there was a desire to encourage newspapers and to facilitate correspondence in every direction. The situation is well described by Postmaster General Pickering in his observations on the post office, in 1793, when he states:

Our fellow citizens in the remote parts of the Union seem entitled to some indulgence. Their great distances from the seats of government and principal commercial towns subject them to peculiar difficulties in their correspondence. They have also few or no printing presses among them. Hence without the aid of public post roads they will not only be embarrassed in their correspondence, but remain destitute of every necessary information.

The National Government entered immediately upon the solution of this problem with the only means at hand, the post office. The day of turnpikes, stages, canals, and railways had not yet come, but an effort was made at once to establish regular lines of postal communication with the West, and thus to do whatever was possible to awaken an interest in the affairs of the Nation. Washington had realized, at a much earlier time, the advantages of communication between the seaboard States and the interior, and in his first annual address, January 8, 1790, he urged the expediency of "facilitating the intercourse between the distant parts of our country by a due attention to the post office and post roads." In his opening address to the first session of the Second Congress, October 25, 1791, he again referred to the posts, pointing out "their instrumentality in diffusing a knowledge of the laws and proceedings of the Government" and urging the establishment of additional cross posts, "especially to some of the important points in the western and northern parts of the Union."7

The opinion of Washington as to the political usefulness of the posts was shared by the early Postmasters General. Samuel Osgood, the first incumbent under the Constitution, favored a reduction in the

1 Hugh Finlay's Journal

1773-1774, 16 ff.

2 Journal and letters of Col. John May, of Boston, 141, note. A post road from Philadelphia to Pittsburg was authorized in 1786, but a contractor was not found until 1788.

Archives of United States Post Office Department, Letter books of the Postmaster General, Book "C" (1793), 54 ff.

Exception should be made of certain State enterprises, but the act authorizing the National Road was approved Mar. 29, 1806, U. S. Statutes at Large, II, 357-359.

Marshall, Life of Washington, V, 9-17; also J. H. U. Studies, series III, pp. 79–91, "Washington's Interest in the Potomac Company."

Richardson, Messages and Papers of the Presidents, I, 66. 7 Ibid., 107.

rates of postage to facilitate correspondence between "the extremes " and the National Capital. Although not entirely converted from the notion that the post office should yield a surplus for the benefit of the Treasury, Osgood realized that the accommodation of 3,000,000 people settled over so great an extent of territory would necessitate giving up a large proportion of the revenue. His successor, Pickering, urged, with still less respect for a surplus, that all measures possible should be taken to promote the circulation of "useful information concerning the great interests of the Union."2

Of similar import were the utterances in Congress. It was stated, in 1791, that "the establishment of the post office is agreed to be for no other purpose than the conveyance of information into every part of the Union." It was maintained that information conveyed by newspapers sent by members of the House had proved highly serviceable to the Government; that wherever the newspapers had extended, or even the correspondence of the members, no opposition had been made to the laws; and that the contrary was experienced in those parts to which information had not penetrated, and even there the opposition ceased as soon as the principles on which the laws had been passed were made known to the people. So, in 1797, on the suggestion of the Postmaster General that it might have "a happy tendency to counteract prejudices and inspire confidence in the Government," in the region recently affected by the Whisky Rebellion, Congress extended a post road to the back country of Virginia. Again, in 1797, it was said that "no estimate could be formed of the produce and advantage of roads in some situations; that it was much to the credit of the United States that information was sent by newspapers into obscure parts. It was maintained that while the receipts of the post office met the expenses every post road in existence should be continued and as many new ones established as the receipts would support, "as it was not proper that any money, on such a laudable establishment, should be put into the Treasury." Instead, therefore, of abolishing unproductive post roads in the western country, Congress adopted the suggestion of Postmaster General Habersham, who, in reporting the deficits on certain roads, remarked as follows:


The unproductive routes in distant parts of the Union are not noticed, as those who are remotely situated appear to have a just claim to that liberal establishment of post roads which has been extended in every direction through

1 American State Papers, Post Office, 5-7.

2 Letter books of the Postmaster General, Book "C" (1793), 54 ff.

Annals of Congress, 1st sess. 2d Cong., December 16, 1791, pp. 253-354.

4 This was recommended in 1796. The road was extended to Clarksburg, Harrison County, Va. U. S. Statutes at Large, I, 509 ff.

Annals of Congress. House, 2d sess. 4th Cong., February 1, 1797, pp. 2058-2059. 73885°-11- -10

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