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In an act of independence from the British government, the Second Continental Congress organized a new postal service in July 1775. Benjamin Franklin was appointed as postmaster general. Despite a clause in the Articles of Confederation to establish a federal post office, Congress waited until October 18, 1782, to pass "An Ordinance for Regulating the Post-Office of the United States of America." After ratification of the Constitution in 1789, giving Congress the power "To establish Post Offices and post Roads," the postal system became part of the Treasury Department and remained so until 1829. Before the end of George Washington's second presidential term in 1797, the number of post offices, miles of post roads, and amount of postal revenues had quintupled.
Originally, the postal recipient paid postage. Rates were set by the Post Office Act of 1792, ranging from six cents for a one page letter carried up to thirty miles to twenty-five cents for one taken more than 450 miles. Letter carriers first appeared in cities in 1794. In lieu of salaries, they collected two cents plus postage for each letter they delivered. The use of adhesive postal stamps was authorized by Congress on March 3, 1847.
On November 8, 1775, Congress resolved, "That all letters to and from the delegates of the United Colonies, during the sessions of Congress, pass, and be carried free of postage, the members having engaged upon their honour not to frank or enclose any letters but their own."1 This controversial privilege was extended to many others beyond the Confederation period. During all the years that Thomas Jefferson held federal office, and during his retirement from public service, he was able to enjoy the franking privilege.
- Kristin Onuf, 8/14/92
Primary Source References
1775 October 7. "Pd. postage 3/4."2
1787 August 15. (Jefferson to James Madison). "A gentleman going from hence by Lorient to Boston furnishes me an opportunity of recommending to your care the inclosed letters which I could not get ready for the last packet. Pray inform me in your next whether letters directed to your foreign ministers or franked by them are free of postage. That they ought to be so, is acknoleged substantially by the resolution of Congress allowing us to charge postages. I have sometimes suspected that my letters stagnate in the post-offices."3
1811 January 25. (George Hay to Jefferson). "I shall by the mail of monday transmit to Mr Tazewell a Copy of the declaration & pleas: of the substance of which he is already apprised."4
1811 March 8. (Jefferson to William Short). "I had laid it in a Cartoon where I habitually lay the letters I have to send off, writing letters afterwards for the post & putting them in the same place, when I came to deliver them to the messenger...I immediately sent him back to the post office to ask for Price’s letter and recieved for answer from the Postmaster that he had sent off all my letters."5
1811 December 30. (Jefferson to Gideon Granger). "I have often been extremely mortified at the abuse of my right of transmission by mail, committed by booksellers and sometimes by foreigners in sending packages of books, which I have always forbidden when apprised in time."6
1814 August 16. "Pd. Mr. Vest portage by state 1.25 and postage on abuses of my frank 1.25 = 2.50."7
- Concise Dictionary of American History, s.v. "Postal Service, United States."
- John, Richard R. Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
- The Oxford Companion to American History, s.v. "Post Office Department," "Post roads," Postage stamps," and "Postal System."
- Saunders, Jennings B. Evolution of Executive Departments of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935. See pp. 169-71.
- 1. Journals of the Continental Congress, ed. Worthington Chauncey Ford (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1905), 3:342.
- 2. MB, 1:409.
- 3. PTJ, 12:40. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 4. PTJ:RS, 3:332. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 5. PTJ:RS, 3:438. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 6. PTJ:RS, 4:371. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 7. MB, 2:1302.