Recently the U.S. Post Office has become ensnarled in national partisan politics because of the crucial role it is expected to play in the November 2020 elections. This is not the first time that the Post Office has become a political factor. “New Arrangements” at the Post Office in 1787–1788 became controversial as the country debated whether or not to ratify the newly proposed Constitution.
Throughout America’s first decade of independence, the Post Office adhered to colonial policies that provided for free delivery of newspapers to subscribers throughout the country and among the newspaper printers themselves. Until the mid-1780s the mail was delivered by post riders who contracted with the Post Office. To provide a more reliable delivery, however, Postmaster General Ebenezer Hazard signed contracts with stagecoach owners for the delivery of the mail including newspapers. When Hazard obtained bids for the delivery of mail for 1788, he was shocked to find that the stagecoach owners had raised their rates exorbitantly. Consequently, Hazard re-instituted the use of post riders. He also eliminated the postage-free delivery of newspapers to subscribers and provided that newspaper printers had to negotiate directly with post riders to exchange newspapers with fellow printers. (Without a national news service, the exchange of newspapers among printers was the primary means of distributing news throughout the country.)
Beginning in January 1788, Antifederalist writer Centinel condemned Hazard’s new policy that “abridges the circulation of newspapers at this momentous crisis, when our every concern is dependant upon a proper decision of the subject in discussion.” Antifederalists saw a conspiracy among the Postmaster General, local postmasters, and Federalists to stifle the circulation of Antifederalist literature, which emanated largely from newspapers in Philadelphia and New York City. By the end of February, William Goddard of the Baltimore Maryland Journal reported that “All Intercourse between the several Printers of News-Papers on the Continent now appears to be stopt by the new & scandalous Regulations of the Post-Office.” Despite a May 1788 congressional resolution allowing printers the free exchange of their newspapers, criticism of the Post Office persisted. George Washington would later lament “that a new arrangement in the Post Office, unfavorable to the circulation of intelligence, should have taken place at the instant when the momentous question of a general government was to come before the People.” Such a policy afforded the Constitution’s “enemies very plausible pretexts for dealing out their scandals, & exciting jealousies by inducing a belief that the suppression of intelligence at that critical juncture, was a wicked trick of policy, contrived by an Aristocratic Junto.” When Washington became President, he refused to nominate Hazard as Postmaster General, one of only a few Confederation officials who were not re-appointed to their old offices. In 1792, Congress allowed printers to exchange their newspapers with each other postage free.
Links to Individual Documents
- Centinel IX, 8 January 1788
- William Goddard to Matthew Carey, 28 February 1788
- George Washington to John Jay, 18 July 1788
- Link to a collection of over 80 documents relating to the Post Office Controversy of 1787-88