“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” — Herodotus, Histories.
At the corner of Bryan and Ervay Streets in downtown Dallas, there is a five-story, gray stone building occupying the entire northeast block. On three sides, above the second -floor bank of windows the inscription “United States Post Office and Court House” is carved into the stone. This edifice was completed in 1930 to house the regional postal center and main post office for Dallas, as well as the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, and various other federal government agencies. It remained the principal locus of the federal government’s presence in the city until 1971, when a new 16 story behemoth opened at 1100 Commerce Street to reflect the humongous growth of the government and its presence in the everyday lives of citizens in the intervening forty years. Of course, in 1971 we had not seen anything yet.
For the first century and a half of our nation, the Post Office was the only federal agency that average citizen came into frequent contact with. Of the enumerated powers of Congress in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, the establishment of post offices and designation of post roads is the only one that empowers the lawmakers to provide a direct service to individual citizens. All others powers have been implied – most of the time in Procrustean fashion – by Congress, the Executive, and the Judiciary in the inexorable centralization of power. The Post Office was by far the largest federal civilian activity and employer for most of our history. In major cities, the main post office was where one went if they had any business with our national government.
The inclusion of postal service in the Constitution as an enumerated power seems to have been a national security consideration as well as a means for raising revenue. The debates in the first Congress on the establishment of the Post Office and the office of Postmaster General as well as correspondence between Founders such as John Jay, Washington, and Franklin indicate that was the case. There seems to have been little discussion of the merits during the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
It made sense that the national government should have the facility to provide for the mail at the time. In the late 18th Century, as it had been from time memorial, communication between persons out of sight or hearing had to have been by delivery of writing by couriers of some kind. The Herodotus quote above recognizes the intrepid communication facility of the ancient Persian army as a reason for its success in defeating enemies. Communication among the colonies through Committees of Correspondence, who used the post facilities of the day, was essential for the success of the Revolution.
The post was to become and remain for the principal method of communication for the next two centuries. The electric telegraph in the 1840s was the first development in communication that did not require the communicating parties to be in sight or sound of one another. The telephone, radio, and television, were improvements. But written, or at least durable, communications were desirable and even essential for many purposes. Teletype, FAX, and now the internet, made the that possible, and to the detriment of the postal service.
Now, the United States Postal Service, the quasi-public corporation that succeeded the Post Office Department in 1972 may be facing bankruptcy, and the validity of its continuing existence is seriously questioned. Long time Washington Post pundit Charles Krauthammer on national television last week said categorically that it should be abolished and private entities like UPS and FedEx should take over delivery of the mail. Krauthammer is hardly alone.
The USPS is now mainly a conduit for direct advertising, sending and paying bills, and some business correspondence. When was the last time any of us received a personal letter, other than a birthday, Christmas, or other holiday card?
The United States Postal Service has now become a dinosaur, and an expensive, high-maintenance on at that. It is time to consider privatization, as many other countries have done.