Go to any of Marin County’s 10 U.S. Postal Service offices virtually any time of the working day and what you invariably find is a line of patrons reaching out the door into the ubiquitous federal antechamber designed to remain open even when the post office is not.
On a recent weekday morning, a home-officed consultant named Karen ducked into the in Mill Valley to pick up some supplies. When she considers a world without the Postal Service, Karen doesn’t like what she conjures. She ticks off such activities as “picking up a check, sending and receiving invitations,” as well as noting “the excellent job the Postal Service does to display and sell stamps and supplies.”
Today, the Postal Service is under assault by self-proclaimed enemies of what Ronald Reagan used to call “Big Gubament.” Even taking into account that various competing delivery services like FedEx and UPS often set up offices virtually next door, and that Congress demands that $5.5 billion be front-loaded by the Postal Service for future retirees, you are still hard pressed to find signs of an organization in extremis.
It is, in fact, a rare occurrence when millions of Americans are not using the services that continue to make the U.S. Postal Service a crucial core function of civilized life in America. It is equally true that the current parlous state of the post office has largely been manufactured by a series of edicts that unnecessarily cripple the system of mail delivery, which could be easily reversed by a Congressional vote.
Cutting the Postal Service some slack should be a no-brainer. It is enough to know that America’s first Postmaster General was Benjamin Franklin, possibly the 18th Century’s smartest man and model citizen of the enlightenment. Today, we should be hearing across the nation the resounding cheer that “if it was good enough for Ben, it’s good enough for all of us.”
It was, however, an even more seminal figure than Franklin who christened and blessed the U.S. Post Office. That honor goes to George Washington, the man who guaranteed the viability of the American Republic by refusing to become dictator when the job was his for the asking. In 1791, in regards to plans for a comprehensive American postal system, Washington noted that the post office and post roads should be based “on a plan sufficiently liberal and comprehensive as they respect the expedition, safety, and facility of communication, and … in diffusing a knowledge of the laws and proceedings of the Government.” What America’s first President meant was that free and easy access to the collective intelligence of the world’s first modern democracy would be the guarantor that that democracy would endure.
So important was the notion of a comprehensive and geographically diffused Post Office that virtually the first act of the new Colonial Congress in 1775 was to appoint Benjamin Franklin the proto-nation’s first Postmaster General, a position that he had also held under British colonial rule.
During his tenure, Franklin traveled widely, opening scores of new post offices and making certain that together they formed a network tying the American colonies together. The power of this notion was clear when the American Revolution began and the new nation was able to take advantage of the “interior lines” of the postal road systems that were a key factor in enabling a ragtag Colonial militias to defeat powerful Great Britain. Another important aspect of the rise of the U.S. Postal Service was the 1789 edict in the Articles of Confederation, the precursor to the Constitution, that encouraged the free access to news by allowing newspapers to send out copies to other newspapers free of charge.
In this and so many other ways, the post office became a ubiquitous entity that connected urban with rural and was a critical part of America’s Continental expansion. Throughout America’s storied expansion, the Post Office served as the symbol of the growing power of the federal system, beloved by supporters and derided to this day by the backers of states rights. The latter group today wants to refight the Civil War through the continued weakening of the federal system of government of which the post office is such an obvious and easy target.
Today, with plans to close more than 3,500 post offices across the nation, and the recent announcement of layoffs and the elimination of next-day service, Postal Service detractors seem, sadly, to have the upper hand, willing to impose the kinds of crushing financial burdens designed, no more or less, to kill off a hated symbol of American Federalism. Looking at the various “improvements” designed to close a deficit that is itself the conscious effort of post office-haters, it seems like a good time to remind ourselves that profitability is not the be and end all of American life. It is simply that some traditions have a more important job than simply making money.
It's time to consider simply anteing up to help save what is at its foundation, a cherished symbol of a system that the modern world seems to be embracing at the same time Americans seem eager to let it go.
Not everyone hates the Postal Service. Expressing how much she utilizes the post as a viable part of today’s complex, multimedia era, Karen the consultant wonders if there might be a way to send a mass e-mailing to local political leaders to come to their senses, as she says, “and help keep the Postal Service alive.” Let’s hope so.