Monday, June 30, 2008

We All Live at the P.O. Now

When Andrew Jackson took office as president in 1829, he appointed friends and supporters to federal patronage jobs. Most people back then knew only one federal employee in person: The town postmaster. As these jobs changed hands in 1829, often for the first time in anyone's memory, the people in America's towns were shocked -- at the evidence of a real federal government.

John Barton Derby wrote: "They go about the streets and ... seem to be saying to themselves, 'E'cod! -- there is a United States government, or I'm darned!' For so beautiful is the system of government continued by our wise forefathers, that while the general government of the United States poises and holds together the whole, no man in the country ever feels its direct action (when it is peacefully and constitutionally administered), excepting in the appointment of a postmaster of his village. And it is only by some irregularity in the system, that he becomes conscious of subjection to higher powers than his own paternal state government."

Which is a charming illustration of the original and intended scope of federal government in the United States. Yes, I find my state legislature even more ridiculous than Congress, but at least if I don't like the way my state operates I can move to another one and still be a U.S. citizen.

But it also illustrates what might be, with perspective, America's great contribution to the world: We are a nation dedicated to the free flow of information. We have contrived since our birth to spread information as widely and freely as technology will allow.

Postmasters (generally local innkeepers or store owners with space to hold mail till people called for it) in 1831 made up 76 percent of the entire federal civilian work force. There were 8,700 of them. The U.S. Army at the time numbered a mere 6,332 men. The post office delivered not just letters, but newspapers, journals, pamphlets, business receipts and bills, and all manner of reading material. In fact, it delivered more newspapers (16 million) than letters (13.8 million).

DeTocqueville was shocked, when he arrived at the absolute frontier of Western civilization (then located in Michigan) to find regular mail delivery there and citizens living in rough-hewn log cabins who were fully conversant on the goings-on in Washington, D.C., as well as the goings-on in Paris. French peasants 30 miles from the capital knew less about it than the Michiganers did.

Thanks to the post office. By 1828 America had almost twice as many offices as Great Britain and five times as many as France. Postal service in Canada was so poor people often routed their letters through the U.S. Contemporaries reckoned that, if ancient figures like Plato or Herodotus could visit modern America, many things would surprise them, but only the post office would really impress them. They spent a lot of time in those days thinking about such things, since America was deliberately built on classical models. And, about the post office, they might have been right.

Well, what the post office was to the 19th century, the Internet has been to the 21st. And in the 19th century as in the 21st, some people mistook the free flow of information for a force that would promote unity and harmony of interests in the nation and the world.

It didn't. One of the first major controversies in the run-up to the Civil War involved the abolitionists swamping the Southern mails with pamphlets meant to convince slaveholders of the error of their ways or foment servile wars and racial butchery (depending on your point of view). In 1835, a Charleston mob ransacked the city's post office and burned bags of abolitionist literature, an act supported by state politicians.

One of the principal and long-running moral controversies of the 19th century involved the propriety of delivering mail on Sundays.

Running the post office sucked the federal government into controversies over social institutions and arbitration of public morality. The federal government never had been set up to do such things and it did them awkwardly.