American Democracy Is in the MailRoundup
tags: African American history, democracy, Postal Service, USPS, labor history
Daniel Carpenter is Allie S. Freed Professor of Government at Harvard University. His latest book will be Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790-1870, forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2021.
In 2004 Muriel Ponder joined the U.S. Postal Service as a mechanic; she quickly recognized it as the best job that she had ever worked. She found there an office group with camaraderie and pride in performance, a ticket to middle-class living provided by stable pay and benefits, and satisfaction in public service. But last month she watched in confusion and despair as three mail sorting machines in her Denver-area hub were taken out of service—not because she and her fellow workers had found anything wrong with the machines, and not because better machines were coming, but because of “orders” from on high to reorganize the workspace.
The machines used to process over a million pieces of mail every day, she writes, were soon dismantled and left to rust in the rain. Ponder’s troubling observation fit a nationwide trend. According to an internal report presented at a congressional hearing two weeks ago, the on-time delivery rate for first-class mail declined by over 8 percent between mid-July and the first week of August. Neither seasonal adjustments nor the pandemic can explain the sudden drop. Rather, we can attribute the decline to the arrival and management changes of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump donor who came onto the job in June and who in July announced an “operational pivot” that trashed functional sorting machines, prohibited overtime, and imposed rigid new trucking schedules.
As Americans wait for their mail to arrive—older people worried about their essential medications, tax filers and accountants puzzled about the whereabouts of their paperwork, households expecting bank statements and monthly bills, and citizens awaiting their ballots—the indispensability of our postal service is becoming clear. It is no coincidence that the post office has been prominent in the news in the midst of our converging national crises over the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and democratic fragility. The immediate disruptions to daily health, economic, and social routines mask and foreshadow a more troubling reality; at stake in the national mail crisis is government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
American democracy is umbilically joined to our country’s postal service. An engine fueled by popular sovereignty, the U.S. postal system served as a central instrument in the creation of the U.S. settler republic. For centuries the postal system has been the only government office accessible to all Americans, the only employer for whom just about any American could work, the only entity that provided universal service as corporate capitalism pulled out of urban centers and rural communities. Today, the post office disproportionately serves and employs minority communities, especially communities of color. The postal system represents the most uniquely American form of state architecture, riddled with the legacies of territorial expansion, indigenous dispossession, capitalism, slavery, and popular government.
The postal system boasts a history inseparable from that of the United States writ large. “Post offices” and “post roads” are mentioned in the 1787 U.S. Constitution as an assumed state function, but it was not until the Postal Service Act of 1792 that Congress engineered a nationwide postal system. Stemming from a petition system in which remote towns and settlements could request roads and offices, the Act accelerated the growth of a sprawling, continent-wide network. From 1792 to 1830 the number of post offices grew from 75 to 8,450. By 1828, Americans had 74 post offices for every 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 17 in Great Britain and only 4 in France. Thanks to Andrew Jackson’s presidential victory that same year, which ushered in a new era of populist patronage, the government created tens of thousands of government jobs for the (white) “common man" before the Civil War. It was the postal system that provided the template of a patronage system through which mass party organizations could build networks and loyalties. Mailed newspapers carried party ballots to voters and mail-in voting was widespread during the nineteenth century, and especially during the Civil War. Electoral democracy depended on the postal service’s vast platform.
As with U.S. democracy, the U.S. postal system began as a white man’s project. The 1792 Act was explicitly designed to spread white citizens across the Appalachian frontier. In Georgia, mailed petitions and the postal dissemination of racist newspapers aided the state’s ejection of the Cherokee and other tribes from their ancestral lands and the expansion of slave plantations. From Andrew Jackson onward, postal expansion didn’t just follow western expansion, it facilitated it and, with it, indigenous dispossession. The exploding postal network harnessed a range of private enterprises (stagecoaches and railways), subsidizing and populating these transports. What began as a small system had become a massive employer; by the beginning of the Civil War, the Post Office Department employed roughly 30,000 workers, all but a handful of whom were white men.
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