“The Post Office Has Always Been Political”Historians in the News
tags: Postal Service, USPS
It’s a story ripped straight from the headlines: A millionaire with no experience in mail delivery and a complex web of personal business interests is appointed postmaster general by the popular-vote-losing Republican president he gave $200,000 to help elect. Liberal critics of the president, such as the Nation, cry foul. It is corruption, plain and simple.
The president was Benjamin Harrison. What, you thought I was talking about someone else?
As Devin Leonard explains in his lively history of the post office, Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service, John Wanamaker was a department-store magnate and an easy target: a Gilded Age campaign donor placed in charge of one of the nation’s most storied institutions. What could go wrong? But instead of chopping away at the post office, Wanamaker tried to revamp it. He pitched ahead-of-his time ideas like free rural delivery, parcel shipping, and postal banking. This was 1889, not 2020—even the businessmen thought the post office should be more than a business.
“We’ve never had a sitting president that’s attacked the Postal Service or the post office like this,” North Carolina A&T State University history professor Philip Rubio told me. Rubio, a former postal worker, is the author of two books about the post office. His most recent, Undelivered: From the Great Postal Strike of 1970 to the Manufactured Crisis of the U.S. Postal Service, was published in June, just as the crisis entered its latest stage.
“This is an historic crisis, and it’s an entirely political one,” he said. “It’s ironic when you think about it—when Nixon signed the Postal Reorganization Act 50 years ago, he said for once and for all we can take politics out of the post office,” Rubio said. “But you just can’t do that. The post office has always been political—not just a political football, but in the past it was one of the coaches. Now it’s more of a football.”
Understanding the ways in which the post office was politicized then helps crystallize what’s different about today. As Rubio explains, for the first two centuries of its existence, the United States Post Office was a cabinet-level department, and the postmaster general was a key cog in partisan political operations. “It was a rare postmaster general who actually had any post office experience,” Rubio said. “They were oftentimes campaign managers, they were political appointees, they were political allies, donors.” They were, in other words, a lot like Louis DeJoy.
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