by Akim Reinhardt
Earlier this week, the United States Post Office announced that come August, it would be suspending regular home delivery service of the mails on Saturdays, except for package service. The USPS is In financial straits, and the budget-cutting move will save about $2 Billion in its first year, putting a dent in the $16 Billion it lost just in 2012.
The Post Office has come under financial pressure from a number of sources over the past decade. Of course the internet has usurped traffic. And there’s also lost market share to private carriers like Federal Express and United Parcel Service, which cut into the lucrative package an overnight delivery markets, while leaving the USPS with an unenviable monopoly in the money-losing but vitally important national letter-and-stamp service. Despite regularly increasing rates over the last decade, the United States still offers one of the cheapest such services in the world, with a flat fee of 46 cents to send a 1 oz. envelope 1st class anywhere in the United States.
For less than half a dollar, you can send a birthday card from Maine to Hawai’i, and be confident that it will arrive in 2-3 days. Pretty impressive. Especially when compared to other nations, almost all of which charge more for an ounce of domestic mail, even though most of them are quite a bit smaller in size. The chart below compares rates from 2011.
Another financial constraint comes from the fact that, other than some small subsidies for overseas U.S. electoral ballots, the USPS is a government agency that pays its own way, operating without any taxpayer dollars for about thirty years now..
However, the biggest factor in its recent financial free fall is undoubtedly the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA), which Republicans pushed through Congress and President George W. Bush signed into law. The PAEA required the Post Office fully fund its pension healthcare costs through the year 2081.
Yes, you read that right. 2081. And it was given only 10 years to find the money to fund 75 years worth of retirement healthcare benefits.
To clarify just how odious this regulation is, think about it like this. In the next three years, the Post Office must finish finding the money to fully fund not only all of its current retirees and current works, but also decades’ worth of future workers it hasn't hired yet. Indeed, some of the future retired workers in question weren’t even born yet when PAEA was signed into law.
Needless to say, no other federal, state, or government agency, much less any private company, has such a mandate, and the USPS is now bleeding money down the drain like it was shivved in a prison shower stall; which, metaphorically speaking, it was. Cloaked in the mantle of fiscal responsibility, the real impetus for the PAEA was an attack on the postal workers’ union, and a nod to the USPS’s private competitors.
Created by the second Continental Congress in 1775, almost a year to the day before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the new United States Post Office was originally deemed so important to the fledgling nation that none other than Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first Post Master General. When the national government was re-ordered under the Constitution in 1789, one of the first things the new document did was empower Congress to establish a new federal post office (Art. I, Sect. 8, Clause 7).
Before the explosion of federal bureaucracy after WWII and the estabsliment of a permanently massive military during the Cold War, the U.S. Post Office had typically been largest employer within the federal government. During parts of the 19th century, up to half of all federal employees worked for the Post Office. But beyond its importance to commerce and the economy, the United States Post Office has also long played a role in the nation’s cultural life.
In many small towns throughout rural America, such as the North Carolina hamlet my father grew up in, it was not uncommon for the only structures on Main Street to be the local church and the local post office. No wonder then that American culture abounds with references to the post office, ranging from the trope of carriers being plagued by overprotective dogs, to the office’s unofficial but iconic pledge that:
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
The phrase, engraved at the James A. Farley Post Office building at 8th Avenue and 33rd Street in New York City, is a translation of Herodotus describing the Persian postal carriers from 2,500 years ago.
Today, however, it seems the post-office faces stiff pressure from the culture of neo-conservative ideology, which fetishizes a vague and even ironically cultish definition of freedom, dogmatically insisting that only private interests can produce public good. It is a philosophy that claims the public good cannot be achieved by the public itself through its constitutional mechanisms. Rather, it champions private business as the premier mechanism of national salvation, demonizing our democratic government as necessarily inefficient and even corrupt. According to this ideology, the constitutional organ of the people is actually the enemy of the people’s happiness and success.
Pardon me if I say that, though no doubt most of its adherents are well meaning, I personally find this extremist ideology to be less than patriotic. While I have no illusions about government being “the solution to all of our problems,” I resent the idea that government itself is to be resented. And I have had my fill of the logical fallacy that zealous alliegance to the constitution is defined by attacking the government that the constitution created.
Nevertheless, this is not the first time that the Post Office has been caught in the crossfire of a grand struggle for the soul of the nation's poltical culture. A couple of years ago, while I was conducting research for my (hopefully) upcoming book on the decline of American communities, I came across some scholarly work that revealed cultural tensions in early America, which also came to focus on the United States Post Office. Indeed, there is a historical precedent for postal operations being attacked by well-meaning Americans who took great umbrage with some aspect of its workings. Some of the parallels are striking. Some of them are ironic.
Much like today, some Americans during the early 19th century believed that the new federal government, though very small its presence, was exerting an undue and detrimental influence on society. However, it was hardly a quest for individualism that a vocal minority of citizens sought to safeguard.
To the contrary, agitated citizens worried that the new nation was descending into the abyss of sin, and they wished to enforce a strict moral code on all. And the best way to save U.S. from going down the Devil’s path, they reasoned, would be to mandate observance of the 4th Commandment: Remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy. In fact, the sentiment was so strong and pervasive, that it soon grew into a national movement known as Sabbatarianism.
So what was the hot button issue offending so many Americans that it erupted into a popular cry for pious Sunday devotions? Was it drunkenness? Gambling? Sexual promiscuity? Some potpourri of Deadly Sins? Not quite.
It was the mail.
Many Americans took grave offense to Sunday mail service. Determined to make America a Godlier place, Sabbatarians would spend decades waging an intense political battle to ban mail service on Sundays.
In early America there were no mailmen yet to bring letters and packages directly to your door. That service would first appear in cities, though free home delivery in rural areas would not begin until 1896. Instead, Americans went to the post office and collected their mail whenever postal couriers delivered it to the local postmaster, which was irregularly. In a nation of small rural communities, a good number of which were fairly isolated, and before railroads or even steam ships, mail did not arrive everyday in most places. Rather, the nation’s 2,300+ local postmasters generally received the mail whenever it might arrive, and then opened their post office after they were done sorting. That might happen any day of the week. But never on a Sunday.
In most towns, people were expected to spend Sunday attending church services, observing the Sabbath, and refraining from secular work. Failure to keep Sunday holy might not only trouble an individual’s conscience, but also subject them to public censure from fellow community members. Consequently, most postmasters did not tend to the mails on Sunday. But then again, some did.
While the practice was not common, some postmasters would sort mail if a delivery arrived on Sunday, perhaps even handing out letters and packages to folks who showed up at the office after church. And this, as it turned out, troubled not only stern church leaders but also Uncle Sam, though for an entirely different reason.
As the nation’s communications infrastructure, U.S. mail was absolutely vital to commerce. But if a businessman in one community could get Sunday mail while a competing businessman in another community had to wait for Monday, it might create an unfair advantage, allowing the early bird to get the worm.
So Congress passed a bill formalizing federal mail delivery schedules for the first time in 1810. The new law required local postmasters to receive the mail, sort it, and open their office to the public on any day a shipment arrived. Whereas local postmasters previously operated around the irregularities of mail delivery, personal discretion, and local community standards, Congress now required regular services be offered on any relevant day, even a Sunday.
The new law was an affront to many Christians who held Sunday as a holy day of worship. Sabbatarians saw Sunday mail activity as a disrespectful violation of their cherished community rules. For example, in many towns across Connecticut at this time, commercial vehicles were actually barred from the streets on Sundays; federal mail coaches were the single exception, and that was only because the Constitution does not allow local or state governments to regulate interstate commerce. As the historian Richard John pointed out, “in hundreds of communities this made [mail] the only local institution impervious to local control.”
Reaction was quick, widespread, and multi-denominational. Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Congregationalists (formerly Puritans), and Episcopalians (formerly Anglicans) all voiced their opposition to the new law, which they viewed as indecent. Increasingly incensed by this assault on their values, Sabbatarians demanded that the 1810 bill be repealed.
Furthermore, critics now called for a ban on all labor by any postal employee during the Christian Sabbath. That would mean Sunday suspension of not just distributing the mail to customers, but also delivery to and sorting at post offices. If Sabbatarians had their way, the entire postal system would shutdown one day a week, prolonging an already frustratingly slow process.
At first, given the importance of mail service, the government resisted these calls. But Sabbatarians mobilized. By 1814, thousands of petitions had poured into Congress. With the War of 1812 raging, however, a weekly suspension of mail service would hamper military officers in the field. The rigors of wartime initially prevented the issue from gaining any political traction, though it returned with renewed vigor though during the 1820s.
As industrialization and urbanization began to reshape the nation, Sabbatarians complained of ever more commercial activity of all sorts occurring on the Sabbath. Sunday mail service was becoming a bigger issue. It had come to symbolize the nation’s growing pains.
Sabbatarian organizations sprouted up not just in small towns, but also in cities like Pittsburgh and New York. However, the surging protest movement also faced new resistance from businessmen. By 1829, new anti-Sabbatarian groups were organizing to maintain Sunday mail. The fight dragged on for decades.
While Sabbatarians did not succeed in getting the 1810 law repealed, other developments eventually came to their aid. During the 1830s-40s, new railroads proved to be a faster but more expensive method of delivering mail, which led to concerns about spiraling costs. Then came the invention of the telegraph. The emails of their day, telegraphs provided near instant communication for the first time, lessening the commercial need for seven-day mail service.
Amid these changes, a succession of Postmasters General during the mid-19th century were able to cut expenditures by limiting certain aspects of national mail transportation on Sundays, which appealed to Sabbatarian ideals. At the same time, fewer and fewer business owners were upset by the cuts in service because faster trains, instantaneous telegraphs, and later telephones, eventually made the issue moot. As Sunday mail delivery by rail became less frequent, more local post offices were able to remain closed on Sundays.
Congress finally put its stamp of approval on the Sunday mail ban in 1912. More than a century after the original 1810 law had sparked outrage across America, a new law finally put an end to all Sunday mail service. This time, it had been lobbied for by both, a new generation of Christian Sabbatarians and local postal clerks eager for a day off.
And that is why American mailboxes are always empty on Sunday. But as to why they’ll soon be barren on Saturdays as well?
Sadly, it seems we still live in a world rife with sin.
 This quote, and much of the information on Sabbatarianism and the post office, comes from: Richard R. John, “Taking Sabbatarianism Seriously: The Postal System, the Sabbath, and the Transformation of American Political Culture,” Journal of the Early Republic 10:4 (Winter, 1990): 517-567.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com