A New Look at the Founders Through the Postal Clause

Published February 22, 2017

The Constitution’s Postal Clause grants Congress power to “establish Post Offices and Post Roads.” There is a fascinating history behind that provision, which I explore in a new article linked here.

Some of the highlights:

* Although the Founders generally favored free enterprise over state-owned business, they made an exception for postal services.

* As understood at the time, a postal system included not only letter and parcel delivery, but freight delivery, official dispatches, and transportation over a system of “post roads.”

* The power to “establish . . . post Roads” included authority to build the roads, not just designate existing roads (as some have thought). The power included authority to condemn private property for road construction and widening (eminent domain).

* The North American colonial postal service was a branch of the British imperial royal post. Ben Franklin, the first American postmaster general, had served in the imperial system for many years. When the United States became independent, Americans’ instinct was to copy British postal policies.

* A “post road” was not defined as any road over which the mail was carried, as many have believed. Rather, a post road was a highway punctuated with stations called “posts”—much like a modern Interstate highway. The posts were places for the exchange of letters, rental of horses and vehicles, production of newspapers, and rest and refreshment at inns and taverns. The term “post roads” does not come from the mail. Just the opposite: The term “post” for the mail comes from fact that the mail traveled over post roads.

* The postal system was not initially for the benefit the general public. It was a way to transmit government messages, accommodate government couriers, and for the government to spy on travelers and correspondence and otherwise collect information. In Britain, and initially some of the colonies, if you wanted to travel the post road you had to sign up with the government. Government officials opened private mail in both Britain and America.  The postal system was said to benefit trade and commerce, but the government suppressed any efforts by merchants to erect competing systems.

* The history of the Postal Clause gives us a somewhat different glimpse of the Founders generally and of some (such as Benjamin Franklin) specifically—a glimpse that is not always in keeping with our admiration of them. It reminds us that they were human, and among their many virtues were some human flaws.

Again, you can read about it here.