During the War of Independence, when there was no internet or phone to provide instant communication over long distances, the connective tissue that held American colonies together was mail carried by riders on the rough roads between cities. and villages. Ensuring mail was delivered as quickly and securely as possible was essential to the survival of the colonies. That is why three months after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress turned to Benjamin Franklin to establish a national postal service as the premier of the Post Office.
“When he was appointed Postmaster General of the American Confederation in 1775, it clearly showed how much the American leaders trusted him to have the interests of the Americans at heart,” explains Carla J. Mulford, English professor. at Penn State University and author of an upcoming book, Benjamin Franklin’s Electrical Diplomacy.
Franklin already had years of experience in the mail delivery business.
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Ben Franklin kept the mail moving fast as Philadelphia Postmaster
By 1737, at age 31, Franklin had already built a successful business as a printer, merchant, and newspaper editor, The Pennsylvania Gazette. That year he was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia, after British authorities dismissed his predecessor for failing to submit his financial reports. As Devin Leonard notes in his book Neither Snow nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service, being a local postmaster didn’t pay much–a 10 percent commission on customer shipping costs, but that came with a big plus. Franklin had franking privileges, which allowed him to send his journal free to readers. This helped Franklin create a big draw and transform the Pennsylvania Gazette in one of the colonies’ most successful publications.
In the same way modern politicians and celebrities rely on Twitter, Franklin used the mail to promote himself. As Leonard notes, Franklin’s ability to send his own letters without paying postage – he simply listed them with “Free.B.Franklin” – allowed him to correspond with other intellectuals in Europe. This helped publicize Franklin’s accomplishments, “thus helping to make Franklin one of the most admired Americans in the world,” as Leonard writes. Stanford University historian Caroline Winterer, who has studied the 20,000 letters left by Franklin, describes him as “a man with a vibrant social network” comparable to our interconnected world today.
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Britain appoints Franklin as postmaster of 13 colonies
Franklin, a meticulous archivist, was so adept at leading postal operations in Philadelphia that in 1753 the British Crown appointed him co-postmaster for the 13 colonies. Although he theoretically shared authority with William Hunter, a Virginia-based printer, Hunter pretty much let Franklin have the hand, according to Leonard’s book. Franklin held this position for more than two decades, during which time he orchestrated huge improvements to the postal service, including establishing a regular schedule that allowed mail to flow efficiently along the postal routes along the East Coast.
Franklin “traveled extensively to inspect postal routes, find the most reliable postal clerks to serve as associates in the various towns and cities, and create a communication system that would work well for postal runners,” says Mulford. .
“Franklin had foresight. He was a good systems analyst, ”says Mulford. “It was nice to work with, when the others were nice. And he was a great convenience store, able to find workarounds when plans went wrong. “
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Mail delivery time is cut, newspaper goes flat
Ultimately, by putting the couriers on the roads at night, Franklin was able to reduce the delivery time of a letter from Philadelphia to New York and receive a response to just 24 hours.
Franklin also organized small, fast packet ships to transport mail to and from the West Indies and Canada, which complemented the transatlantic service provided by the British Crown from England and established the first delivery system to home in the colonies, according to Franklin’s biographer. Walter Isaacson. He even opened a dead letter office in Philadelphia to handle undeliverable mail.
Another of Franklin’s reforms – having already made his own fortune – was to issue a 1758 decree that all newspapers would be carried by postal couriers for the same uniformly low rate, according to Winifred Gallagher’s book. How the Post Created America: A Story. This dramatically increased the settlers’ access to information, especially about what was happening elsewhere in the world.
As a colonial postmaster, Franklin performed much of his work remotely. From the late 1750s he began to spend much of his time in England, where he did his work by post, checking postal records from afar and implementing his decisions by letter. The British government did not care, because in 1760 the postal operation to the colonies was profitable for the first time.
But Franklin’s involvement in the growing resistance to British taxation and rule eventually led him to clash with British authorities.
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Leaked letters lead to Franklin’s dismissal
Things got worse after Franklin received a packet of letters sent anonymously by Thomas Hutchinson, the British governor of Massachusetts. Franklin gave them to a friend, who then leaked them to a Boston newspaper, and they caused an uproar.
“Letters [Franklin] sent to Massachusetts from London showed how the British colonial rulers were desperate to suppress the settlers, ”Mulford says. As a result, Franklin “was brutally and summarily dismissed” from his post as Postmaster General in January 1774.
After Franklin returned to America, the mechanical-type postal system he had built began to collapse without his managerial skills. The settlers began to establish their own independent post offices. A former Providence postmaster, RI, William Goddard, created the Constitutional Post, an alternative service that allowed settlers to send letters to each other without risking Crown postmasters opening and reading them.
After the Declaration of Independence, the American Post was born
Goddard tried unsuccessfully to get the Continental Congress to adopt his makeshift service as the official mail system. But the delegates wanted something bigger and better. After two months of study, in July 1775 they offered Franklin the new post of Postmaster General, for a salary of $ 1,000 – about $ 33,500 in today’s dollars – and authorized him to hire from staff. He was tasked with establishing a new postal route system from Falmouth, Mass. (Now Portland, Maine) to Savannah, Ga., With as many connections between the two as he saw fit.
Franklin hired his son-in-law Richard Bache as his deputy, and the disappointed Goddard as surveyor-in-chief, and set about replicating the system he had built for the British Crown. As only a man already familiar with the land could, he quickly set up new post offices and hired local postmasters to manage them. Unfortunately, few documents remain from Franklin’s tenure as Postmaster General to provide details of his decisions. But he was so successful in removing Crown Postal Service business in the colonies that at Christmas that year he was so hungry he had to shut down, according to Gallagher.
Franklin also took advantage of his postage privilege to send out his usual prolific production of letters, playfully replacing his postage symbol with “B. Free Franklin ”to show his challenge to the British.
Franklin served as Postmaster General for only about a year. A few months after the founding fathers’ declaration of independence in July 1776, Franklin was sent to France to carry out another important mission as ambassador to the court of King Louis XVI. But the postal system that Franklin helped build continued to thrive and became a staple of the new democracy. His accomplishments were honored by placing him, along with George Washington, on the first US postage stamps in 1847.
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