This November, record numbers of people are expected to vote by mail, in large part because of the coronavirus pandemic. But a new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, recently made major cuts to the Postal Service, raising fears that Republicans are trying to defund the Post Office, delay deliveries, and cause late-arriving ballots to go uncounted in November. The Postal Service, which was experiencing delays even before the latest cuts, recently warned forty-six states that it may not be able to deliver ballots in time for them to be counted. And, last Thursday, in an interview on Fox Business Network, Donald Trump said explicitly what many people have suspected. “They need that money in order to have the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” he said, of Democrats’ pandemic relief bill, which includes funding for the Postal Service and state election officials. “If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”
How did the Post Office become integral to the functioning of a free and fair society, and has it always been politicized? To answer these questions, I recently spoke by phone with Winifred Gallagher, the author of “How the Post Office Created America,” which tells the story of the institution’s creation in the eighteenth century and describes its role in the United States through the modern era. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also talked about how various administrations have managed the Post Office, the problems that bedeviled the institution before Trump, and why the President’s meddling is so dangerous.
Why was the United States Postal Service, then the Post Office Department, created?
It actually started way before the Post Office Department. The Post has been integral to America since colonial days. Among the first concerted acts of the patriots—like Jefferson and Adams and thousands of others—was that they created underground postal systems to dodge British spies in the 1760s and 1770s. These were called the Committees of Correspondence. And then the patriots created the Constitutional Post in 1774, which became the Post Office Department in 1775, a year before the Declaration. So, it’s really the oldest government agency. The whole idea of a communication system is woven into the DNA of America right from the beginning.
The Post Office that was established in 1775 was so the revolutionaries and the generals and the logistics people could communicate with each other during the war. Our first Postmaster General was Benjamin Franklin. But, in 1792, a major political decision was made by Washington, Madison, Rush, and men who, like Franklin, were Enlightenment thinkers. They decided that they would use the Post Office for the political purpose of generating an informed electorate, by using the mail to deliver cheap newspapers, the cost of which would be paid for by very costly letter postage.
At that time, very few people sent letters, mostly businessmen and lawyers and people like that. If you’ve read Alexis de Tocqueville, he arrived in 1831 and he was absolutely stupefied by how well-informed Americans were about public affairs, and how pervasive the Post Office system was. This was at a time we had already had five times more post offices than France and two times more than Great Britain. We were still wet behind the ears as a country. So this was a decision that they made that really created the United States as a global information and communication superpower.
Around this time, you also had Andrew Jackson intent on politicizing the Post Office. What was his role in the history of the institution?
It was an interesting role. The first President to engage in overt partisanship involving the Post Office was actually Jefferson, who was in office between 1801 and 1809. He actually replaced ten per cent of federal employees, most of whom then worked for the Post Office, with his own supporters. But Jackson, who was in from 1829 to 1837, really institutionalized postal patronage with his spoils system. He created this rotation-in-office policy that replaced thirteen per cent of the postal workers, and postal workers were three quarters of the federal workforce, with his Democrats, regardless of merit. So he fired perfectly capable people who were more associated with the Federalist/Whig faction of John Quincy Adams, which also hurt, not incidentally, the very good postal service in the Whigs’ New England.
Jackson made the Postmaster General a Cabinet officer, which was a big deal. Jackson also took his very righteous Postmaster General, John McLean, who was a brilliant executive, and kicked him upstairs to the Supreme Court, and installed his cronies. And, from then on, the spoils system allowed whichever party won the White House to hand out tens of thousands of jobs to its supporters. So, in a bizarre way, even though it was born from partisanship, it was kind of nonpartisan because both parties exploited it to the highest degree.
How much politicization was there from that time up until the Nixon era?
Both parties used it for their advantage in terms of handing out patronage jobs. But, in general, the Post Office has always gotten a lot of bipartisan support, and many of the great Postmaster Generals have been Republicans. We want to think in our day and age that it’s the Democrats who look out for the little people, but, during the golden age of the Post Office, between 1890 and World War One, roughly corresponding to the Progressive Era, the Republican Postmaster General John Wanamaker sided with the common people against the robber-baron monopolies, especially banking and rail.
He was an interesting guy. He made a fortune with Wanamaker Department Stores, and became one of these rich guys who could have been a robber baron himself. But he wanted another challenge, and he decided on public service, so he took on the Post Office, and then it was phenomenally powerful. People wondered at it. Railway mail service sped up the mail, and the cars were stocked with postal clerks who sorted all the letters while the trains were moving. People some days got same-day replies. It was a huge engine of America as a global power. He felt that, the same way his department store gave people good merchandise for reasonable prices, the Postal Service could do the same.
But in rural areas, you had almost no horizons. If you needed something, you had to pay what the store wanted to charge for it. The railroad monopolies charged a fortune to ship a parcel to you. His big claim was rural free delivery. During the Civil War, people who lived in cities got home delivery of letters. Before that, everyone had to go to the post office to pick up their mail. But country people didn’t get that service until he pushed hard for it, and it wasn’t enacted until he was out of office. The Democrats wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of this happening (see above) until he left office, but he was really the philosopher king of changing and redefining the Post Office from simply being about information and communication to also being about things. He advocated for rural free delivery, and postal savings, which gave banking services to average people whom the banks wouldn’t serve, and parcel post, which brought goods to rural people. So, can you say that was political? Yes. But it was democratic, and in favor of the people. The Post Office is by nature political, if political means related to the government and public affairs, but political to serve what end? Is it serving democracy or partisanship?
So then tell me about the Nixon reorganization, which seems like the birth of the modern U.S.P.S. Why was it undertaken, and why was it so important?
Well, he finally ended the spoils system with the Postal Reorganization Act. The Post Office experienced a terrible crisis back in the late sixties, where it was running at such a deficit that there were just big postal meltdowns, most famously in Chicago. So everybody realized that something had to be done to fix it up. Between two World Wars and the Depression, the Post Office had been totally starved of resources. And then during the postwar economic boom, the mail volume doubled, and post offices were still dealing with equipment that Benjamin Franklin recognized, so there were a bunch of things that brought the crisis to a head.
So Nixon turned it into the U.S.P.S., which was a government-business hybrid run by a board of governors who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Also, in the nineteen-seventies, interestingly, a small but vocal libertarian group—Senator James Buckley, William F. Buckley’s brother, was a leader of the crowd here—started agitating to privatize the Post. Their position was, What’s the value of government? Why shouldn’t everything be privatized? They started rumblings then, and there is still rumbling, put it isn’t a popular position.
But the Post Office’s current crisis, by my thinking, really began when the very timid U.S.P.S. and Congress, who were freaked out over the meltdowns in the sixties, really tragically decided not to shift from letter mail to e-mail and give Americans digital addresses the same way they gave us our physical addresses. People were aware that that’s what should have happened. And they were just afraid to do it. They were afraid to ask Congress, and the government, to authorize it. There were some really prescient P.M.G.s, like William Bolger, who served from 1978 to 1984, and William Henderson. I think they saw the potential of the electronic post and they tried experiments. But the private enterprise just said no, you can’t compete with us. The bulk mailers wanted the mail to keep going out, and other services wanted to do the electronic thing, and they were thinking, Why should we let the Post Office do it? And then the Congress and the Postal Administration were just too chicken to do it. So, by 2001, e-mail had in fact drastically reduced the volume of first-class letter mail. That is a big part of the budget.
When did the Post Office get so intimately involved with elections?
Boy, I should know, because I lived for fifteen years in Wyoming, and postal voting in the big Western states has been going on for some time. I lived seventy-five miles from the nearest pharmacy or big-box store or anything like that. So where people have to drive these enormous distances, it just made intuitive sense to governments. It wasn’t at all partisan, and it’s cheaper. You don’t have to have all the local electoral people manning the polls, and it’s efficient. Why not do it? It was completely uncontroversial.