July 26, 1776 – An American Post Office Is Established

On this day in history, an American Post Office was established with Ben Franklin as Postmaster General. Franklin used “B. Free Franklin” as his signature while in that office.

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Before the Revolution, most of the mail went back and forth not among the colonies but to counting houses and government offices in London. With the coming of the Revolution, the colonies now needed to communicate with one another to circulate news, new laws, and military orders, inter alia. Journalists were especially eager to have a postal system established.

There were intermittent attempts to set up colonial postal services, as the U.S. Postal Service recounts in its online history. In 1673, for example, Governor Francis Lovelace of New York set up a monthly post between New York and Boston. The service was short-lived, but the post rider’s trail became known as the Old Boston Post Road, part of today’s U.S. Route 1. Governor William Penn established Pennsylvania’s first Post Office in 1683. In the South, private messengers, usually slaves, connected the huge plantations; a hogshead (a barrel 43 inches high and 26 inches in diameter) of tobacco was the penalty for failing to relay mail to the next plantation. As plantations expanded inland from port regions, so did the communications network.

In October, 1774, William Goddard, a Patriot printer who was frustrated with the unreliable means for both sending out and receiving information, laid out a plan to the Second Continental Congress for a Constitutional Post. Benjamin Franklin promoted Goddard’s plan; he had already served as postmaster general of the colonies from 1753 to 1774, when he was fired for opening and publishing Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s correspondence.

On July 26, 1776 the Second Continental Congress finally adopted the plan, agreeing to appoint a Postmaster General for the United Colonies who would establish a line of posts “from Falmouth in New England to Savannah in Georgia, with as many cross posts as he shall think fit.”

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A special proviso added “That it be recommended to the postmaster general to establish a weekly post to South Carolina.”

The Congress then unanimously chose Benjamin Franklin as the first Postmaster General.

While postmaster, Franklin streamlined postal delivery with properly surveyed and marked routes from Maine to Florida (later to become Route 1), instituted overnight postal travel between the critical cities of New York and Philadelphia and created a standardized rate chart based upon weight and distance. As the U.S. Post Office history reports:

Thanks in large part to Franklin’s efforts, the colonial posts in North America registered their first profit in 1760. When Franklin left office, post roads operated from Maine to Florida and from New York to Canada. Mail between the colonies and the mother country operated on a regular schedule, with posted times.”

Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress established the Confederation Post Office effective October 18, 1782. Although the Constitution was adopted in 1788 it was not until 1792 that Congress formally established the United States General Post Office.

By 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.

18th Century Post Route Map

Originally, the postal recipient paid postage. 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.

The USPS employed 626,764 workers as of January 2014 and operated 211,654 vehicles in 2013, the largest civilian vehicle fleet in the world.

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