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Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse

Author(s):John, Richard R.
Reviewer(s):McGuire, Mary K.


Published by H-Business

and EH.Net (August 1999)

Richard R. John. Spreading the News: The American Postal System from

Franklin to Morse. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press,

1995. vii + 369 pp. Tables, endnotes, primary sources, and index.

$54.00 (cloth), ISBN 0

-674-83338-4; $18.95 (paper) ISBN 0-674-83342-2

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.NET by Mary K. McGuire, Department of History,

Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

The U.S. postal system has received surprisingly little historical attention

over the

years, and even less so in recent historical discussions of the state,

politics, political culture, and administration. Even in the latest turn

toward the state, notably among the “new institutionalists,” the postal system

has remained on the fringes of

historical inquiry. While there may be many reasons for this,

I suspect that part of the problem is a sense that it has all been said before.

After all, conventional wisdom knows that the history of the U.S. postal system

is the history of the “spoils sys tem,” of civil service reform, of the weak or

non-existent pre-New Deal federal state.

And for many historians, the study of large-scale political institutions such

as the Post Office Department is mired in the worst excesses of the

“old” political history-a place we have left behind and with good reason.

Despite some recent works that have attempted to reconsider the subject from

various perspectives, the history of the U.S. postal system seems remarkably

resistant to a sustained historical inquiry or interest.

In this work, Richard John not only directs our attention to this relatively

neglected area of study, but he does so from an innovative interpretive

position that opens new ways of approaching and understanding the subject.

Taking, as he terms it

, a contextualist approach, he examines the postal system within the historical

context of the early Republic and the role it played in important social,

political, and cultural changes taking place over a nearly seventy year period.

In an arena where too few have ventured to show the way, John has set himself

a large task-a task made larger by his insistence on understanding the postal

system as an agent of social change in its own right, with significant impact

on shaping the contours and outcome of certain critical moments.

Specifically, he is concerned “not merely to locate the postal system in

the social process, but to explore its role as a social process, and, in

particular, to consider some of the ways in which the communications revolution

that it set in motion transformed American public life” (p. 24). This is an

ambitious project equal to the size and significance of its subject, and John

does an impressive job of developing his thesis with a wealth of detailed

historical information and

deftly handled political, social, and cultural analysis.

Both symbol and reality of the federal government in the early decades of the

fledgling republic, John asks us to consider the postal system’s significance

as the centerpiece of a communications ”

revolution.” As John makes clear, this was a revolution with very decided

market implications and intentions, creating a network of federally designed

and funded transportation and communications links that drew together the

people, producers, and places

of an increasingly far-flung nation.

In the first chapters of this book, he examines the policy and structural

innovations that established and deepened federal postal dominance in this

communications revolution. But, true to his thesis,

John goes beyond a mere discussion of the politics behind this transformation

to the impact of the transformation itself on shaping a new, national, public

sphere for this new, democratic republic.

According to John, the Post Office Act of 1792 laid the cornerstone for postal

impact on American public life when it permitted the transmission of newspapers

through the mails, alongside laying the groundwork for a greatly expanded

postal network. It also protected the sanctity of the mails from surveillance

and other interference-a critically important innovation in a world context

where privacy in communications was far from a right in law or in practice.

Then, turning to one of the central political-administrative figures of the

early postal system, Postmaster General John McLean, John identifies the early

administrative innovations of this nascent bureaucratic enterprise under

McLean’s leadership. In so doing, John asks us to reconsider our assumptions

about national politics and the federal state in the early Republic

, which is an important addition to our understanding of the supposedly

“stateless” United States in the period before the New Deal. For historians of

bureaucracies and of business enterprises, John makes another significant

contribution when he identifies administrative and managerial innovations in a

time and a place where we would hardly have expected to find them. It is

virtually a commonplace among business historians to date the introduction of

middle management practices from the middle nineteenth century and the

creation of huge railway enterprises. In this study, John shows that middle

level management techniques and principles already existed in a well-defined

form within the postal system-a system which could not have functioned without


three-tiered administrative structure and its

“hub and spoke” distribution system.

Bringing together the federal level politics and the federal level

administrative developments that occurred under John McLean as Postmaster

General, John explores and ex plains the administrative structure being set in

place even as politics influenced and shaped the postal system that was being

developed-and more. As he concludes: “By greatly expanding the power of the

Postmaster General, the completion of the postal network threatened to tilt

the delicate balance between the postal system, the rest of the executive

branch, and the individual states” (p. 110). It was this consolidation of

political and administrative power in the federal state, in the form of the

Post Office Department, which would influence the political and administrative

battle over “spoils” and states rights in the Jackson presidential campaign and

administration. In his later chapter on the Jacksonians, John expands this

political analysis in a discussion of the efforts by Jacksonians to hold the

federal state administration accountable to their understanding of the

classical republican creed.

Rotation in office-the so-called “spoils” system-wreaked some havoc with the

administrative operations and structure of political institutions like the

Post Office Department, but it also laid the groundwork for building the mass

party system that the Jacksonians had brought into existence in the election of


This analysis of the spoils system is not altogether a new one, but John ties

it to the power of the postal system as the centerpiece of a central, federal

state-the very thing that states’ rights advocates like the Jacksonians were

concerned to limit. For political historians, the power of his analysis lies

here, by showing how the Jacksonians manipulated the power of appointment to

public office to bring together their political creed of the democratic

republic and their political

need to build the mass party that had brought them into power. In

other words, it might be said there was an internal logic to the spoils system

that, abuses notwithstanding, was not entirely at odds with earlier assumptions

about the role of the postal system in creating an informed and politically

active public among its widespread communities and citizens. The nineteenth

century notion of “the egalitarian ideal,

which held that every citizen had the necessary ability to hold public office

and in this way to participate directly in the affairs of state”

(p. 1 35), was widespread, but not until the Jacksonians would it become


But this policy, like the politics behind it, was limited to free, white men.

In one of his most fascinating discussions, John looks at the public spaces

controlled by the postal

system. Here he argues that the postal system facilitated “an imagined

community that incorporated a far-flung citizenry into the political process”

(p. 168)-and this despite, or perhaps because of, the constraints placed on

free blacks and on women in

that public space. This is a wide-ranging discussion,

which deals with the aristocratic tradition and influence in securing public

office, the introduction of the military model for public officers, the

exclusion of free blacks from mail delivery, and the problems faced by women

in the male-dominated public space of the post offices. Arguing that “official

norms helped to shape public attitudes regarding the boundaries of American

public life” (p. 142), he concludes that “(t)hrough a combination of customs,

laws, and social conventions,

the central government and ordinary Americans had together constructed a new

social type-the citizen as free, white, and male-and a new kind of social

space-an imagined community that was more or less congruent with the

territorial confines of the United States” (p. 168). As the only public

institution as widespread as the citizens of the nation it served, the postal

system was a central factor in creating and regulating that new social space.

However, it is also here,

as well as in his chapters on Sabbatarianism and on abolitionism, that some

may find it difficult to see the postal system as an agent of social

change with such powers to shape the emergent nation’s political culture and

social conflicts. John’s treatment of the Sabbatarian

controversy–transmitting the mails and opening the post offices on the

Sabbath-is compelling, as is his argument that this needs to be seen as “a

struggle over the proper role of the central government in American public life


not, as is often presumed, merely a struggle between competing social groups”

(p. 191).

Likewise, his discussion of the abolitionist controversy-the mailing of

unsolicited abolitionist literature to southerners-brings to light an important

incident in the

battle over states’ rights vs. federal authority in the years preceding the

Civil War. However, it is less convincing in these cases to see the postal

system as the agent of change. It seems more reasonable that the postal

system was the

medium used to provoke change, or was the space in which certain

battles over social change would be fought. John himself seems to suggest this

when he notes of the Sabbatarian controversy that “it demonstrated how easily

a small group of activists could take ad vantage of the communications


that had been wrought by the postal system, the stagecoach industry, and the

press to mobilize public support throughout the United States” (p. 202). Who

is agent and who is subject here?

I am not interested in splitting hairs, and I am more than willing to accept

the postal system as an agent of social change. And, certainly,

John seems to equate “agent of social change” with the “communications

revolution” he has so ably shown the postal system to have initiated in this

period. However, that seems to me less a clarification of “agency”

and more an opening to explore what it means for the state to act as an

agent of social change. Published in 1995, John’s study came out at a time

when new works on the state, ideology, law, policy, and institutions had

somewhat recently begun to appear-some in response to the much earlier effort

to “bring the state back in”. Many of these works take as their central

premise the notion of the state or its institutions as agents of social

change, and a vibrant discussion emerged among the political scientists,

sociologists, and historians who take the state seriously as an agent in its

own right. In a very important way, I believe John’s study contributes to that



although without directly engaging it, and that is to be regretted. For

example, his short conclusion takes us back all-too-briefly to the

“communications revolution” where, in his interpretation, it all began.

But after such a journey through administrative history, politics,

political culture, public life, and social conflicts, it would have helped

tremendously to tie it all together with some more generalized attention to how

the postal system acted as the agent of social change and in “shaping

the boundaries of American public life” (p. 283).

Even so, this does

not diminish the power of John’s study, or his astute

analysis of the postal system in this early period of U.S. history.

Situating this postal history in its larger historical context and political

significance, John has done a very fine job with a huge,

complex, and unwieldy subject. This is an exhaustively researched study and it

draws on a wealth of detail to make its case. More than that, it raises some

important new ways of under standing events, such as Sabbatarianism and

abolitionism, that should be of interest to historians of nineteenth century

America. Political historians will be especially interested in his treatment

of Jacksonian democracy in action and his attention to political culture and

American public life.

Business and economic historians will find his discussion of the communications

revolution and the expanding postal network useful additions to our knowledge

of government policy influences on the early development of the national

market in this period. And those of us who study the state and state formation

should find this a welcome contribution as well, not only for taking on a

neglected and important subject, but also for taking that subject in new

direction s.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative