This will likely be the first of several posts (heh!) I write on the post office; anyone who knows me knows that it’s a bit of an obsession of mine.
Tenured Radical, writing at The Chronicle, has inspired me to finally offer something in this space. After a recent visit to her local post office, she speculates that it “may … simply disappear as an institution in my lifetime.” She found a business both antiquated and in tatters: the post office could not accept credit cards, and had a diagram up for children about how to properly address and stamp an envelope that seems silly to most adults. I love the post office, but I’m guessing she’s probably right about its impending demise, at least as far as a public (or really quasi-public) postal service is concerned.
What’s striking me at the moment about that likelihood is the implication of a potential closure of the post office. It will mean that, for the first time in its history (one that predates independence), the state will have left the public information business. The Post Office was one of the first institutions established by the Continental Congress in July 1775. The only institutions that predated it as representatives of the united colonies were Congress itself and the Continental Army—that’s it. The Post Office is older than the Navy, older than the Marine Corps, older than the Presidency and the Supreme Court. The first Federal Postmaster General, Samuel Osgood, was a member of Washington’s Cabinet.
Why? Information is (or was) important to the state. Keeping the channels through which information flowed open was a vital state matter, and made the post office a central player in creating an informed citizenry to participate in American democracy. (Especially prior to the Revolution, it was also a tool of state surveillance and censorship, lest I appear too Whiggish.)
Since the eighteenth century, the United States has had a more ambiguous relationship to new information technologies. As Richard John recently showed, Congress declined to take ownership of Morse’s telegraph lines, and likewise stayed out of the telephone industry. In the 1960s, DARPA, an agency within the Department of Defense, created the Internet (possibly with the assistance of an earnest Harvard government concentrator). That too, however, is now primarily in private hands.
The post office is all that’s left, and even that is really not quite public. The United States Postal Service operates independently, though it maintains universal service and meets other mandates set by Congress. But if and when it goes the government will no longer play any role in guaranteeing for its citizens the ability to transmit information. Some in the Senate seem more concerned that we should be sending more love letters, but I find the larger question far more troubling, even taking into account the real and dire financial situation in which the USPS finds itself.