Monday, November 14, 2016

Booknote: How the Post Office Created America

Winifred Gallagher, How the Post Office Created America. New York: Penguin Press, 2016. ISBN: 9781594205002.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: history, United States, government agencies
Format: e-book galley
Source: NetGalley

This book shows how the agency that went on to become the U.S. Postal Service truly served to unify and to help grow the nation. It also embodied the debate of what is a public good or not, and at its best it showed what a service for the public good run by the government of the people can do to keep people informed and unified. It was a service that over time Americans have taken for granted, and now in a time when Americans are more selfish and materialistic, the postal service may not survive. Through it all, the service had its ups and downs, brilliant moments, and missed opportunities, but it has always managed to serve the nation faithfully.

The author offers a pretty comprehensive history of the postal services from colonial America to the 21st century. In fact, at times it may be a bit too much in terms of minutiae and detail. There were some passages that bogged down the narrative a bit and slowed down my reading experience. There are also some very interesting parts to the story. However, this was a book I liked, and it is an important book on a part of U.S. history that not many people think about today. The book is not just a history of the post office; it is a history of the nation.

After a short introduction, the book is arranged in 16 chapters. It ends with an afterword. The book includes notes on sources and also a list of suggested readings for those who wish to learn more.

I  would say this  is a must have for public and academic libraries. For academic libraries, this is an important selection for U.S. history programs. For public libraries, this may be the new definitive history on the postal service. This is a book that people need to be reading to be informed and understand the importance of the USPS and why it needs to be preserved. I will certainly  order a copy for my library. Although it was not always a smooth read, I still liked it, and it is one I would recommend.

3 out of 5 stars.

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Additional reading notes:

The Founders had a new idea in their desire to keep the common man informed and knowledgeable of public affairs:

"Their novel, uniquely American post didn't just carry letters for a few; it also subsidized the delivery of newspapers to the entire population, which created an informed electorate, spurred the fledgling market economy, and bound thirteen colonies into the United States" (1).

Why this book is significant:

"The people and their elected representatives, who must soon decide the post's future, now know very little about the institution, past or present. Indeed, the most widely read academic history was published in 1972, and the best popular one, in 1893. Most of the scholarly literature focuses on the nineteenth century, and there has been very little study of the period after the 1930s. It is time for Americans to learn more, particularly about the post's modern history, which this book bases on extensive primary research, including interviews with scholars, and postal professionals as well as explorations of libraries, museums, and archives" (5). 

Unlike other history books, this one looks at the nation's history through the lens of  its communications network.

The  early United States was founded on the idea that its citizens needed to be informed:

"The infant United States, however, was based on an idea that was anathema to history's great powers: if a people's republic were to work, the people had to know what was going on" (31).

That is an idea that is clearly lost today given how poorly informed Americans are today. Notice the irony of this in a time where there is more access to more communication channels than ever.

Today, many Americans take for granted that the post office will offer universal service to all in the nation, and that it is a right. That principle, in reality, was not the case. In fact, it was a modern concept:

"Modern Americans take for granted the so-called universal-service mandate, which says that all citizens everywhere are entitled to mail access for the same price, but this principle was rarely discussed in such absolute terms until the twentieth century. The act didn't make it a basic right, like freedom of speech or religion, but it fostered the idea that if a group of citizens could establish their need for postal service, they could reasonably hope that the government would provide it" (35). 

In the book, I also got to learn more about Benjamin Rush. I knew little of him prior to reading this book, and I had no idea of his role in promoting the postal service. I may seek out a good book or two on him later. This went along with his advocacy for newspapers as necessary tools to educate citizens. This led to, in the early days, to strongly subsidizing newspaper delivery via mail. On this, the author writes,

"Rush's advocacy for newspapers as egalitarian educational tools that were 'absolutely necessary' to adapt the 'principles, morals, and manners of our citizens to our republican forms of government' is writ large in the Post Office Act's remarkable provisions for the circulation of information. The law essentially subsidized the growth of America's struggling press by recognizing all newspapers as patriotic enterprises that, for the first time, qualified as official mail-- a marked contrast to the policy in Great Britain. As much, papers were now entitled to a place in the sacrosanct portmanteaux and the same secure handling as letters-- and at a very low postage rate meant to encourage the development of an informed citizenry" (38).

However, just as today, just because Americans  have access to more information, it does not follow they will be smarter or better informed. Sure, the political scene may be more vital, but it also gets rowdy, messy, and often argumentative. It was a risk the Founders chose to take in favor of an uncensored press.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Americans could write and send letters with ease. These have become great primary documents for historians:

"That nearly all Americans could now both write letters and afford to mail them would prove to be an enormous gift to historians, because their correspondence provided personal information from all social strata, not just the elite" (92). 

Another addition to mail of the 19th century was the greeting card:

"America began to manufacture cards in the mid-nineteenth-century, the first of which celebrated Christmas and the New Year (as well as Jewish versions of the latter), soon followed by St. Valentine's Day" (96). 

After the Progressive Era, you could see things began to turn bad for the postal service (and other social services too) as the business mentality and worship of the private sector and profit took over in the 1920s, just as the Great Depression was about to hit. This mentality of making money and profits over people continues to plague the U.S. today. So, what happened then?

"In a momentous if little remarked upon change, some legislators and even some of the department's own managers began to drift away from the broad historical understanding of the post as an almost open-ended public service and began to recast it as a business instead. Instead of thinking in terms of what the post could next do for people, officials grew preoccupied with  increasing its revenue and reducing its deficits" (220). 

That may well be the turning point towards the downward spiral. Here is one vision of what we could have had if public interest was kept as main motivation instead of greed and special interests:

"The postal visionaries of the past would have tried to provide Americans with cheap, secure broadband access and email accounts that protect them from hackers and hucksters. They would have moved to capitalize on the post's great brand for security and privacy by offering safe ways to transact business online, including a legally binding digital signature service, secure cards for paying bills and authenticating identity, and safe digital storage" (266). 

Alas, we will likely never see any of the above. Like previous failures to seize opportunity, the digital revolution was missed. But it was not so much the fault of the USPS:

"That the USPS and a Congress beset with lobbyists from special interest groups didn't foresee or respond to the digital revolution's impact on the post's traditional operations and seize upon its positive potential was a monumental failure" (266). 

In the end, very few Americans really appreciated the postal service, especially in the late 20th century into the 21st century, yet many Americans still take it for granted (even as they vote for politicians more than willing to dismantle it):

"Very few appreciated that between the early 1980s and 2007, the USPS supported itself without any tax dollars while continuing to provide universal service at reasonable rates-- an achievement that would have impressed Benjamin Franklin and every postmaster since" (273). 

And while fans of privatization gloat, the reality is they leave a very inconvenient reality out of their narrative, a truth that shows precisely why we need a government-run universal public service:

"However, privatizers gloss over the major reason for the different bottom lines of businesses and public services, even a hybrid like the USPS: public services do the difficult, unprofitable work that businesses eschew, such  as providing universal mail service to every American everywhere for the same low price" (280).

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Book qualifies for these 2016 Reading Challenges:

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