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Harper's New Monthly Magazine Article From 1851

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Posted 02/20/2008   10:26 pm  Show Profile Bookmark this topic Add bobby131313 to your friends list Get a Link to this Message
Thought it could be an interesting read for you.

Harper's New Monthly Magazine
November 1851 Volume 3, Issue 18 pages 837-846

It is now upward of eleven years since the writer of this commenced advocating "postal reform and cheap postage." At first it found but little favor either from the public or the Post-Office Department. Many considered the schemes Utopian, and if carried into effect would break down the post-office: but neither ridicule or threats prevented him from prosecuting his object until Congress was compelled in 1845 to reduce the rates of postage to five and ten cents the half-ounce.

The success attending even this partial reduction equaled the expectations of its friends, and silenced the opposition of its enemies. The friends of cheap postage, in New York and other places, renewed their efforts to obtain a further reduction, and petitioned for a uniform rate of two cents prepaid. But such was either the indifference or hostility of a majority of the members that no definite action was taken on the subject for six years, nor was it until the last session that any reduction was made from the rates adopted in 1845. Notwithstanding this shameful delay in complying with the wishes of the people, the new law adopted four rates instead of one, leaving the prepayment of postage optional. Besides this, the new law imposes on newspapers and printed matter a most unreasonable, burdensome, and complicated tax, which has created universal dissatisfaction.

The obnoxious features of the present law imperiously demand the immediate attention of Congress. Neither the rates of postage on letters, nor the tax on newspapers and printed matter, meet the wishes of the friends of cheap postage. They have uniformly insisted upon simplicity, uniformity, and cheapness. But the present law possesses none of these requisites. On letters the rates in the United States are three and five, six and ten cents, according to distance. Ocean postage is enormous and too burdensome to be borne any longer. The rates of postage on newspapers are so complicated that few postmasters can tell what they are, and those on transient newspapers and printed matter generally, are so enormous as to amount to a prohibition. A revision of this law is rendered indispensable. Other reforms are required, some of which I shall here notice.

1. Letter postage should be reduced to a uniform rate of two cents prepaid. This fate has been successfully adopted in Great Britain. It has increased the letters and the income of the post-office. It is the revenue point, sufficiently low, to encourage the people to write, and to send all their letters through the post-office; and yet high enough to afford ample revenue to pay the expenses of the Department. If this rate is adopted, it will defy all competition, for none will attempt to carry letters cheaper than the post-office.

2. Ocean postage is enormous and burdensome, especially upon that class of persons which is least able to bear it. It has been computed by those who are competent to judge, that about three-quarters of the ship letters are written by emigrants, and are letters of friendship and affection. The greater portion of them are from persons in poor circumstances, and to tax them with twenty-four or twenty-nine cents for a single letter is cruel. To send a letter and receive an answer, will cost a servant girl half a week's wages, and a poor man in the country will have to work a day to earn the value of the postage of a letter to and from his friends in Europe. Were the postage reduced to a low rate, ten letters would be written where one now is, and the revenue, in a short period, would b. equal if not greater than under the present high rates. During the last twelve months, the amount received for transatlantic postages was not less than a million of dollars, and three-fourths of this sum has been paid by the laboring classes on letters relating to their domestic relations and friendship.

3. Next to the reduction of inland and ocean postage is the free delivery of mail letters in all the large towns and cities. An improvement has been attempted by the Postmaster-general in respect of letters to be sent by the mails. They are now conveyed to the post-office free of any charge; and the next step necessary is to cause them to be delivered without any addition to the postage. A letter is carried by the mails three thousand miles for three cents, but if it is sent three hundred yards from the post-office, it is charged two cents! This is not only an unreasonable tax, but is attended with much inconvenience both to the carrier and receiver of the letter, in the trouble of making the change, and the delay attending the delivery of letters. If the prepayment of the postage covered the whole expense, a carrier could deliver ten letters where he now delivers one, and fewer persons would be able to deliver them. Two cents cover the whole expense of postage and delivery of letters in London, and there is no reason why they can not be delivered in New York and other cities as cheaply as they are in the capital of Great Britain. The expense to the post-office would be comparatively small, as the income from city letters would be nearly equal to what would be paid if an efficient city delivery was adopted. If the free delivery should be adopted, it would be a great relief to the people and this like every other facility afforded by the post-office, would tend to increase the number of letters sent by the mails.

4. The franking privilege should be wholly abolished. This has been so much abused, that the people have loudly complained of it, and almost every Postmaster-general for the last ten years has recommended its abolition. Instead, however, of diminishing or repealing it, it has been increased, so that two sets of members 'can now exercise it, and the cart-loads of franked matter sent from Washington show that it is a dead weight upon the Department. At the last session, one member had twenty-eight large canvas bags of franked matter, weighing not less than five thousand pounds! To say nothing of the vast expense of printing and binding millions of documents and speeches which are never read, the burden, and labor, and cost to the post-office are incalculable. When newspapers were few in number, there might have been a necessity to send out speeches and documents, but as newspapers are published in all parts of the Union, every important report and speech is published and read long before it can be printed and sent from Washington. Let the members of Congress be furnished with a sufficient number of stamps to cover their postage, and these be paid for as the other expenses of Congress. The frank was wholly abolished in Great Britain, when the cheap system was adopted, so that Queen Victoria herself can not now frank a letter!

5. But the grievance, which is now felt and most complained of by the people, is the complicated and burdensome tax on newspapers and other printed matter. It has heretofore been the good policy of Congress to favor the circulation of newspapers throughout the country, and accordingly one and a half cents was the highest rate charged to regular subscribers for any distance, and two cents, prepaid, for transient papers. These rates were plain and easy to be understood, and few were disposed to complain of them, although they were much higher than they should be. The new bill has some sixty or seventy different rates, and so complicated, depending upon weight and distance, that not one postmaster in twenty can tell what postage should be charged upon newspapers. Again the rates are enormous. For example, a newspaper in California, weighing one ounce or under, is charged five cents prepaid, and if not prepaid ten cents, and the same for every additional ounce; hence the Courier and Enquirer or Journal of Commerce. weighing two and one quarter ounces, is charged to San Francisco fifteen cents prepaid, and if not prepaid thirty cents! What is the effect of this law It prohibits the circulation of newspapers through the post-office entirely, and all that are now sent go by private expresses. If I understand the subject correctly, it was the object of those who proposed the "substitute" to the Bill which passed the House of Representatives, to exclude from the mails newspapers and printed matter. Is this right?

6. Another reform which should be made by Congress, is the payment of postage entirely by stamps. If no money was received at the post-office except for stamps, and the postage on every thing passing through the office prepaid, the saving of labor would be immense, both to the general post-office and local offices. But this is not the only advantage. The amount lost, by the destruction of post bills, is incalculable. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are unaccounted. for and lost every year by the Department, by the present loose, inefficient system of accounting for the postages received on letters and newspapers. While this system continues there is not, and can not be any check on the postmasters. Let the payment of postage be made by stamps, and it would be an effectual check upon every post-office, and the Department would receive the money for every stamp sold, whether it was used by the purchaser or not. This is a subject worthy of the serious consideration of Congress and the Post-Office Department.

7. There is one more improvement which I would recommend before closing this already long article, and that is the establishment of a money-order office. This would not only be a great convenience to the people, especially to the poorer class, but it would also prove a source of revenue to the post-office. During the last year, there were sent through the money-order office in Great Britain upward of forty millions of dollars! When it is recollected that each order is limited to twenty-five dollars, the number of letters carrying these orders must be very large, adding to the receipts of the post-office. The same results would follow a similar establishment in the United States. There being no guarantee for the safe delivery of money, transmitted by the mails, such letters are now sent by private expresses, for which they receive a remunerating compensation.

I have briefly suggested some of the reforms which I deem necessary for the improvement of the post-office. It was said last winter by some of our Senators in Congress, in their places, that "OURS IS THE WORST MANAGED POST-OFFICE IN THE WORLD." I can not agree with them in this assertion. But I regret to say that it is not the 6est managed, nor so good as it should and must be. The great drawback to its improvement, and, I may add, the curse that rests upon it, is its being made a political machine. It was a great and fatal mistake to make the Postmaster-general a member of the Cabinet. The great personal worth of Mr. McLean induced President Monroe to take him into his Cabinet, and the practice has been continued ever since. The consequence is, that the Postmaster-general is changed under every new administration. In less than two years we had three, and two assistants. How can it be expected that men, whatever may be their talents, can make themselves acquainted with the business of the office in the short space of three or four years! Before they are warm in their seats they are removed. Besides, after a new administration comes in, it takes six or twelve months to turn out political opponents and appoint their friends. If, instead of this, when intelligent and efficient men are in office (no matter what their political affinities may be), they were continued, it would be an inducement to make improvements, and an encouragement to fidelity; but now there is no security to any man that he will be continued one hour, nor any encouragement to excel in the faithful discharge of his duty. These things ought not so to be.

There is another practice which greatly retards the improvement of our post-office, and that is the manner in which the post-office committees are appointed in Congress. At every session of Congress new committees are appointed by the Senate and House, a majority of which is composed of the dominant political party, without much regard to their qualifications. For a number of years there has been scarcely a single member selected from any of our large cities, where the principal portion of the revenue is collected, consequently, they are persons who have little or no knowledge of post-office business, or the wants of the people. Their principal business is to obtain new post-routes, but any improvement of postal concerns is little thought of. Hence the Post-Office Department may be considered a vast political machine, wielded for the benefit of the party in power; and there is not an appointment made, from the Postmaster-general down to the postmaster of the smallest office, without a special regard to the politics of the person appointed.

The only correction of this evil, under the present system, is to give the appointment of all the postmasters to the people. They are the best qualified to judge of the character and qualifications of the person who will serve them in the most acceptable manner; and the postmasters, knowing that they are dependent upon the people for their offices, will be more obliging and attentive in the discharge of their duties. This will diminish the patronage of the President and the Postmaster-general, which I have not a doubt they would gladly part with, as there is nothing more troublesome and perplexing to a conscientious man, than the exercise of this power.

In the old world, where monarchy exists, the press is called the "fourth estate ;" but with us, where "vos populi, vox Dei," the press and the ballot-box may be considered the sovereign. The press utters the wish of the people, and the ballot-box confirms that wish. Hence, if the press speaks out clearly and strongly in favor of postal reform, the people will sanction it by their votes in selecting men to represent their wishes in the councils of the nation. Our post-office, instead of being denounced the "worst," should be made the best managed in the world. We have no old prejudices or established customs to abolish, no pensioners or sinecures to support, no jealousy on the part of the government against the diffusion of knowledge through the mails; but we have an intelligent, active, liberal gentleman at the head of the Post-Office Department, who desires to meet the wants and wishes of the people. Therefore we have reason to hope that in due time our post-office will be established on such a footing as to secure the patronage and support of the people, defying all competition, and superior to any similar establishment in the world.

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Posted 02/21/2008   6:56 pm  Show Profile Bookmark this reply Add t360 to your friends list  Get a Link to this Reply
As far as I know, all the reforms he suggested were made, which vastly improved our mail system and made it affordable for everyone.
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Posted 02/27/2008   4:54 pm  Show Profile Bookmark this reply Add gussyboy1 to your friends list  Get a Link to this Reply
Thanks for sharing! Very interesting! Is item #4 comparable to our JUNK mail today? ha

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