Post Should Support Itself

The “restrictionists,” who included Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton as well as postmasters, who were paid from commissions on mail volume, believed, as Franklin had, that the post should support itself and even, like Britain’s, turn a profit for the government. From their perspective, the system should remain concentrated along the cost-effective East Coast, where both the population and profitable business and commercial correspondence were centered. The restrictionists also insisted that newspapers that paid no postage could hardly be considered legitimate mail worth delivering. Taking the opposing view, Rush, Washington, and their fellow “antirestrictionists” argued that the post was no mere moneymaker for the Treasury but what Rush described as “the true non-electric wire of government,” which should circulate papers for free whether the service paid for itself or not—a startling notion indeed.

In the end, the act embraced the Platonic ideal of a post that if not profitable should at least be self-supporting-a fateful decision that marked it as the rare federal agency that was expected to sustain itself on its revenue. . . .

The legislators came up with a radical Robin Hood-style scheme to finance their ambitious new post. Revenue from populous areas, where the volume of lucrative letters was highest and service the most cost-effective, would cover the expense of supplying newspapers throughout the whole country, including the least profitable rural regions. Mailing a single-page letter would cost between six and twenty-five cents, depending on the distance traveled, but a big broadsheet could travel for one hundred miles for a mere penny, and any distance for a penny and a half. (Two years later, “periodicals,” such as pamphlets and magazines, were also admitted to the mail, for slightly higher postage.) Most letters were sent by businessmen along the settled northeastern corridor, so Americans in the rustic South and on the expanding western frontier particularly benefited from this policy.