The Debate Around Neutrality is not a New One: A Review of “How the Post Office Created America”

I just finished reading an excellent book about the history of the post office. I found out about the book from one of my favorite podcasts: 99% Invisible. The podcast was good, but didn’t even begin to describe the fascinating story behind our nation’s postal service. The title of the book is “How the Post Office Created America: A History“, by Winifred Gallagher. One of the more interesting pieces in the book was about how the US government and the post viewed the introduction of telegraph service in America in the mid-1800s.

Technology and our Postal Service

The history of the United States Postal Service and technology are intertwined. The founding fathers of our great country saw the postal service as more than a way to send a letter to a friend. (Even though the united States was the first country to allow the general public to do such a thing). They viewed it as a communication tool for the dissemination of information across the population. To them it was an educational tool. For this reason, the postal service always heavily subsidized the delivery of magazines and newspapers relative to the cost of sending a first class letter. Cheap newspaper delivery made it easy to spread the ideologies behind the revolution to the general population.
Furthermore, the postal service always leveraged the latest technology. Specifically, the focus was on shortening the time it took to deliver a letter. They first integrated the expansive train network. At the beginning the postal service used trains just to transport mail. Then the train cars became moving post offices. Workers on the mail cars accepted and sorted letters, thereby reducing the transit time even more. 75 years later, the Postal Service began using airplanes to deliver mail. The post’s reliance on these technologies helped spur their private industry growth, and regulation.

The Post and Regulation

The railroad was the first private industry to be regulated by the government. This was partially due to the fact that just a few companies held a monopoly on rail transport. But the railroads weren’t the only monopoly in the US, the other big one was the postal service itself, and their mutual reliance on each other was often the impetus for regulation. Along the same lines, the reason our airspace is highly controlled is because the postal service needed organized and reliable flight patterns to deliver mail back in the 1930s. Additionally, in a sign that the post was more than just a government service, the postmaster general was a cabinet level position until the mid-1970s.

This brings us to the debate over how telegraph service should be rolled out across the country and who should control the telegraph lines: the government, or private industry?

Telegraph Neutrality

The telegraph was one of the first major communication advances in hundreds of years. (The story of the telegraph is fascinating in its own right, but here is not the place for that story. Just know that a huge opportunity was missed about 300 years prior to its widespread adoption). In 1857, many government officials, including President Grant, thought that it should be controlled by the postal service. However, anti-government sentiment was growing in this period, and the idea of another government controlled monopoly was highly unpopular. Nevertheless, Congress passed legislation in 1866 that allowed the US to set telegraph rates. Additionally, companies could only string their wires along post roads if the government could buy them out five years later.

The telegraph fight lasted 15 more years, until Jay Gould bought Western Union, one of the largest telegraph companies. By then, government control of public utilities was highly unpopular. A few years later, the Populist Party, which favored government involvement in public utilities, was defeated in elections. Following this, the issue came in and out of view over the next few decades as the communication industry expanded.

Conclusion

While not exactly the same, the argument over controlling the telegraph is the same one being had now over net neutrality. For services that everyone uses, what is the correct level of government involvement? How do we balance the needs of private industry to grow without stifling it in the process? There are no easy answers to this question, but somehow it seems like the answer always comes out to be the right one. The telegraph was a game-changer in the communication field. So too, the internet is growing to be a critical part of our lives these days, even with some carriers regulating which traffic gets to flow through and when.

Other topics in this book include some innovative thinking about how the post office can recreate itself in the digital world and also the essential role the post played in fomenting the revolution, which I briefly mentioned before. The title of the book makes a bold statement, but the author wonderfully proves her point in an easily readable and enjoyable book.

Featured image credit: By Bureau of Engraving and Printing (United States Post Office Department) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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