The Postal Act of 1792

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The Postal Act created the U.S. Postal Service. President George Washington signed the Act into law on Feb. 20, 1792.

Colonial rider

The Postal Act made formal and regular what, until that time, had been sporadic and informal. During colonial days in America, private couriers or friendly travelers carried mail from person to person, from place to place. Shops and taverns and other places where people gathered serviced as "post offices"–in function, if not in name.

It was also common practice at this time for British soldiers to open mail addressed to other people. Suspicion of sedition was high in some cities, notably Boston and Philadelphia, and laws did not prohibit soldiers from seeking to protect the Crown in this way. The opening of mail by nonmilitary personnel, such as shopkeepers or tavern owners, was less common but did still happen.

One of the prime intentions of the Postal Act was to ensure the privacy of the mail. By placing mail delivery in the hands of dedicated postal officials and requiring those officials to deliver the mail unopened, Congress ensured such privacy; the only exception to this was undeliverable mail.

Colonial post office

Another prime intention of the Postal Act was to establish regular mail routes, to be followed by dedicated mail carriers. The haphazard methods that private carriers used to deliver mail naturally gave rise to haphazard mail delivery routes, if any such thing existed at all. And, lacking a dedicated route, a mail carrier, who might very well be just delivering mail as a favor, would quite possibly feel no compunction to facilitate a speedy delivery.

The British Government had established in 1707 a position of postmaster general. Some mail was, by then, changing hands through official channels. The first postmaster generals for the American colonies were Benjamin Franklin and William Hunter, so named in 1753. Franklin, by himself, was the first United States Postmaster General when the Second Continental Congress created the United States Post Office in 1775. It wasn't until 1792, however, once the colonies had won their independence, that the USPS became a permanent of the federal government. Postmaster General at that time was Timothy Pickering.

Postal Act of 1792

The Postal Act of 1792 also allowed mail delivery to include newspapers. The Founding Fathers strongly believed in a freedom of the press; they also believed that it was the spead of information–through newspapers and pamphlets and other forms of writing–that had played a large part in uniting the disparate 13 Colonies under one flag, fighting toward one goal. The U.S. Government also subsidized the mail transport of newspapers.

The price for sending a piece of mail ranged from 6 cents to 12 cents. It wasn't until 1847, however, that postage stamps were first used.

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David White