A few months ago, I’d read of the victory of the United Parcel Service’s union against their greedy shareholders (see “WE’VE CHANGED THE GAME”: TEAMSTERS WIN HISTORIC UPS CONTRACT). It sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole with an unrelated question of - if the United States Postal Service exists - why does UPS and FedEx or any of the other delivery services operating within the United States exist? This post isn’t about the answer to that question, because I still haven’t quite found it.
What this post is about is how I feel that the arguments as to why a federal postal service exists and is essential for the functioning of a democracy (which hopefully this country will one day have). I do have to include as a personal item of snark are my neighbors who will claim to be “constitutionalists” (whatever that might mean) and that the Second Amendment is sacred (I don’t disagree with the argument that a person has the natural right to defend themselves), but during the end of the Trump Administration they’d argued against the continued existence of the United States Postal Service. The argument being, of course, the USPS lost X number of dollars every year, while not understanding that things cost money to operate. Neoliberal propaganda spread by the mass media owned by the rich who run this country has convinced many citizens of this country that the government can do no good and all functions should be privatized, which I fully and completely disagree with. While the legal right for citizens to own weaponry had to be later amended to the constitution, the requirement that the federal government operate a mail system is in the original document itself.
First and foremost is the text in the Constitution, specifically, Article I, Section 8, Clause 7:
To establish Post Offices and post Roads;
Pretty straightforward - this charges Congress with the duty of establishing a “Post Office”, but gives no real further details on what a post office may look like or how it would operate. Over the years I’ve heard fans of the United States’ Constitution claim that various clauses within it are intentionally vague so as to give flexibility in law. This may be true, as the rich people who began the government were nearly uniformly descendants of the British (to be clear, this includes not just the English, but Scots, Welsh, and Irish). It has been brought to my attention that, to this day, European law has a tradition of giving judges and their courtrooms far more ability to decide if any particular action is or is not against the law, unlike the law in this country which is now rigidly written.
Fortunately, there is historical information that explains, more specifically, what the people establishing this government thought constituted a “post office”, since it seems to be an important enough governmental function to put it in the first Article establishing that government.
First item of interested that I had found with the men who established the United States government over the people who live here is from The Federalist Number 42, published on January 22nd, 1788 written by James Madison in which he lays out the important reasons for having a post office. To place the writing and publication in a place in time - the United States’ Constitution was presented on September 28, 1787 and ratified June 21, 1788. James Madison’s writings would have come in between the completion of drafting of the document and it’s ratification. The Federalist Number 42 spends time on several of the items brought up in Article I. Madison discusses powers of the “second class” and “third class”. Second class being how the government interacts with foreign governments, and the third:
The powers included in the third class, are those which provide for the harmony and proper intercourse among the states.
His thoughts on the post office specifically are of no more verbosity than the Constitution itself has:
Under this head might be included the particular restraints imposed on the authority of the states, and certain powers of the judicial department; but the former are reserved for a distinct class, and the latter will be particularly examined when we arrive at the structure and organization of the government. I shall confine myself to a cursory review of the remaining powers comprehended under this third description, to wit, to regulate commerce among the several states and the Indian tribes; to coin money, regulate the value thereof and of foreign coin; to provide for the punishment of counterfeiting the current coin and securities of the United States; to fix the standard of weights and measures; to establish an uniform rule of naturalization, and uniform laws of bankruptcy; to prescribe the manner in which the public acts, records and judicial proceedings of each state shall be proved, and the effect they shall have in other states, and to establish post-offices and post-roads.
The conclusion of the essay has a further thought about post-roads:
The power of establishing post-roads, must in every view be a harmless power; and may perhaps, by judicious management, become productive of great public conveniency. Nothing which tends to facilitate the intercourse between the states, can be deemed unworthy of the public care.
The passages further describing the federal powers of this third class (I’ll not include it in its entirety here, please use the link above) seems to argue that these powers are to both ease the cooperation of individual states (instead of letting the states themselves hash it out) and to avoid the states from doing a poor job at hashing it out, thereby “it would nourish unceasing animosities”. James Madison, and presumably his peers, understood the post office as a necessary function of the federal government to establish a strong federal government and then keep it as such by building infrastructure allowing states to better cooperate with each other, as failing to do so would undermine federalism.
As another side bar and, hopefully, a reminder - the idea of a strong federal government won out - it wasn’t the only idea on the run up to the ratification of the constitution. Other Virginia - Patrick Henry - is a noted for not wanting a strong federal government, because the office of the presidency could turn into a monarchy. On this point, I think that Patrick Henry’s fears are ever closer to being realized - as I feel the office of the president holds far too many powers that run afoul of any semblance of a democratic government that derives its powers from the consent of the governed.
The second, and last, piece of historical information that I found while reading about the post office is one that is unavoidable in a search. In 1833, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court Joseph Story (nominated by James Madison) wrote Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, in which (Article 1, Second 8, Clause 7 § 1120) he includes what reads as nearly a love letter to the post office. The lengthy passage I’ll include here:
The post-office establishment has already become one of the most beneficent, and useful establishments under the national government. It circulates intelligence of a commercial, political, intellectual, and private nature, with incredible speed and regularity. It thus administers, in a very high degree, to the comfort, the interests, and the necessities of persons, in every rank and station of life. It brings the most distant places and persons, as it were, in contact with each other; and thus softens the anxieties, increases the enjoyments, and cheers the solitude of millions of hearts. It imparts a new influence and impulse to private intercourse; and, by a wider diffusion of knowledge, enables political rights and duties to be performed with more uniformity and sound judgment. It is not less effective, as an instrument of the government in its own operations. In peace, it enables it without ostentation or expense to send its orders, and direct its measures for the public good, and transfer its funds, and apply its powers, with a facility and promptitude, which, compared with the tardy operations, and imbecile expedients of former times, seem like the wonders of magic. In war it is, if possible, still more important and useful, communicating intelligence vital to the movements of armies and navies, and the operations and duties of warfare, with a rapidity, which, if it does not always ensure victory, at least, in many instances, guards against defeat and ruin. Thus, its influences have become, in a public, as well as private view, of incalculable value to the permanent interests of the Union. It is obvious at a moment’s glance at the subject, that the establishment in the hands of the states would have been wholly inadequate to these objects; and the impracticability of a uniformity of system would have introduced infinite delays and inconveniences; and burthened the mails with an endless variety of vexatious taxations, and regulations. No one, accustomed to the retardations of the post in passing through independent states on the continent of Europe, can fail to appreciate the benefits of a power, which pervades the Union. The national government is that alone, which can safely or effectually execute it, with equal promptitude and cheapness, certainty and uniformity. Already the post-office establishment realizes a revenue exceeding two millions of dollars, from which it defrays all its own expenses, and transmits mails in various directions over more than one hundred and twenty thousand miles. It transmits intelligence in one day to distant places, which, when the constitution was first put into operation, was scarcely transmitted through the same distance in the course of a week. The rapidity of its movements has been in a general view doubled within the last twenty years. There are now more than eight thousand five hundred post-offices in the United States; and at every session of the legislature new routes are constantly provided for, and new post-offices established. It may, therefore, well be deemed a most beneficent power, whose operations can scarcely be applied, except for good, and accomplish in an eminent degree some of the high purposes set forth in the preamble of the constitution, forming a more perfect union, providing for the common defence, and promoting the general welfare.
In my opinion, I think that for the people of this country to strive towards one that is democratic, there is no more important function than that of the ability to freely transmit ideas to each other, other than literacy itself. The post office facilitates the distribution of ideas and has done so well for a very long time, and this is critical to the exercise of the legal rights granted in the First Amendment. The post office has strict regulations on what mail can and cannot be inspected and under what conditions (United States Postal Inspection Service website has plenty of information about its function) and this is critical for us to enjoy the legal rights granted to United States citizens under the Fourth Amendment.
All of the above is important to me, because I feel that humanity’s greatest creation is that by which you are able to receive and read these very words: The Internet. Just as the administration of Woodrow Wilson violated the freedoms promised by the Constitution by using the Espionage Act to search citizenry’s mail for anti-war newspapers and he also used the lie that suppressing the free exchange of ideas about the government was somehow good for democracy, the George W. Bush era Congress passed the PATRIOT Act which still continues to tread on the right to share ideas as publicly or privately as we desire. (Sidebar for historical note, Russ Feingold, a Democrat Senator from Wisconsin was the sole member of Congress (as far as I could research) that voted against the passage of the PATRIOT Act). As of such, I support the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and all other organizations with similar goals, which works towards regaining, keeping, and expanding our rights to use our species global post office.
As a post script, I do want to point out that I reject the blind lionization of the “Founding Fathers” as some sort of governmental prophets. I do not agree with everything James Madison had to say about governance, and I think that he also was a hypocrite of the first class, see below.
It were doubtless to be wished that the power of prohibiting the importation of slaves, had not been postponed until the year 1808, or rather that it had been suffered to have immediate operation. But it is not difficult to account either for this restriction on the general government, or for the manner in which the whole clause is expressed. It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate for ever within these states, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period it will receive a considerable discouragement from the federal government, and may be totally abolished by a concurrence of the few states which continue the unnatural traffic, in the prohibitory example which has been given by so great a majority of the union. Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans, if an equal prospect lay before them, of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European brethren!
Also from The Federalist Number 42, January 22nd, 1788, penned by James Madison, who appears to be quite against slavery, yet did claim ownership of over one hundred human beings and did not return a single one of them during his life or upon his death to the natural right of freedom that all humans have.