J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Making the Mails Travel

Today Boston 1775 welcomes guest blogger Eric Jaffe, author of a new book titled The King’s Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America. This essay, adapted from the book, describes the development of the British postal system along the Atlantic coast, and how it got caught up in Revolutionary change.

The first American post rider left New York for Boston in January of 1673. Francis Lovelace, colonial governor of New York, made establishing a postal system his personal mission. And his personal obsession. So consumed was Lovelace with the mail that he imprudently left New York that July to discuss the system, only to be interrupted with the news that the Dutch had taken Manhattan.

Following this fateful decision, the colonial postal system endured a period of fits and starts. The new Dutch leader outlawed correspondence with New England, even jailing the English post rider John Sharpe. When Britain regained New York in 1674, Governor Thomas Dongan was authorized to set up post offices all along the East Coast, but was sent “noe power”—read: money—“to doe it.”

A lack of adequate funding plagued the young system for decades. Duncan Campbell, colonial postmaster of New England and firm believer in a system “of so great a benefit to this country,” frequently petitioned the mother country for expenses. Still, by the time his son, John Campbell, assumed this position in the early 1700s, the office lost a considerable 275 pounds a year. By late September 1703, John Campbell was soliciting colonial leaders for “some encouragement” to boost his post office, “else of necessity it must drop.”

It was Ben Franklin who finally gave the post office the “encouragement” it needed to thrive. As joint deputy postmaster general, the post office’s highest position in America, Franklin addressed the problems with mail service that had lingered, nearly unchanged, for roughly a century. He provided postmasters with precise accounting tables and demanded punctuality of his riders. “You are not,” he instructed them, “out of Friendship or Compliment to any Person whatsoever, to delay his Majesty’s Post one Quarter of an Hour.” If a letter sat unclaimed for two months, it was sent to Philadelphia—the birth of the “dead letter office.”

Later on, Franklin devised an odometer that measured distance between routes and called for the placement of milestones to both guide riders and help them calculate costs. He hung rate-tables in every office and slashed the speed of exchange between New York and Boston: “By making the Mails travel by Night as well as by Day,” he wrote, “Letters may be sent and answers received in four Days, which before took a fortnight.”

Taken altogether, Franklin’s designs essentially drew the modern postal blueprint. He made communication in America strikingly efficient. Finally, come 1761, he made it profitable. It had taken eight years, but the colonial post office finally earned money for the English government: a modest 494 pounds. Over the next three years the American office sent the mother country roughly two thousand more.

Sure enough, the throne took a renewed interest in the colonial post. King George III ordered colonies to do whatever it took so “the Posts may meet with no delays or interruptions.” Soon the crown decreed that anyone caught robbing the post “upon the King’s Highway … shall suffer Death as a Felon.” The measures largely worked. By 1774, England annually brought in 3,000 pounds from the American post.

But early that year, in the wake of the Boston Tea Party, British leaders dismissed Franklin as deputy postmaster. Anyone considered “too much of an American,” like Franklin, was replaced with postal workers willing to put British interests ahead of colonial rights. The safety of American mail, wrote Franklin, “may now be worth considering.”

Indeed, rebellious colonial printer William Goddard was considering just that. In response to Britain’s tightened grip, Goddard formulated a plan for a “constitutional” post office. Not only would Goddard’s mail service employ only American sympathizers, but any revenue would be shared within the system, rather than sent to England as a general tax.

During the spring of 1774, driven by a single-mindedness worthy of Francis Lovelace, Goddard sold his plan to colonial leaders along the Post Road between New York and Boston. Samuel Adams embraced the plan with gusto. Paul Revere called it “one of the greatest strokes that our Enemies have mett with (except the late affairs of the Tea).” At the second Continental Congress, the following year, the gatherers finally ratified the constitutional post—unanimously naming Franklin the first American postmaster general.

Thanks, Eric! Check out the King’s Best Highway website for more information on the Boston Post Road and the many things that have happened along it.


Marcia Miner said...

I thoroughly enjoy your your blog. This one caught my eye because I had posted some information about the first post riders and the Old Boston Post Road upon which I live. Here are two posts I made some months back.



I am the Town Historian, an honorary title, to be sure. It was the reward, as it were, because I have written many hundreds of articles in the local paper about the history of our town that was burned by the British July 7, 1779.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Marcia Miner, for those two postings about the Post Road through Fairfield, Connecticut.

In addition, Joseph Adelman of Johns Hopkins sent this link to his recent paper “‘A Constitutional Conveyance of Intelligence, Public and Private‘: The Post Office, the Business of Printing, and the American Revolution.” Thanks!

Marcia Miner said...

Thanks J.L.Bell, I will pass Joseph Adelman's paper on to our history museum library. I am sure they will be interested.