During the Revolutionary War, when there wasn’t any internet or telephones to provide instantaneous communication over long distances, the connective tissue that held the American colonies together was mail that was transported by horseback riders on the rough-hewn roads between cities and towns. Making sure that the mail was delivered as quickly and dependably as possible was critical to the colonies’ survival. That’s why three months after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress turned to Benjamin Franklin to establish a national post service as the first Postmaster General.
“When he was appointed postmaster general for the American confederation in 1775, it clearly showed the extent to which he was trusted by American leaders to have Americans’ best interests at heart,” explains Carla J. Mulford, a professor of English at Penn State University and author of an upcoming book, Benjamin Franklin’s Electrical Diplomacy.
Franklin already had years of experience in the business of delivering mail.
Ben Franklin Kept Mail Moving Swiftly as Philadelphia Postmaster
In 1737, by age 31, Franklin had already built a prosperous business as a printer, shopkeeper and publisher of a newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. That year he was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia, after British authorities removed his predecessor for failing to submit financial reports. As Devin Leonard notes in his book Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service, being a local postmaster didn’t pay much—a 10 percent commission on customers’ postage—but it came with a big fringe benefit. Franklin had franking privileges, which enabled him to mail his newspaper to readers at no cost. That helped Franklin build a big circulation and turn the Pennsylvania Gazette into one of the colonies’ most successful publications.
In a similar way that modern politicians and celebrities rely on Twitter, Franklin used the mail for self-promotion. As Leonard notes, Franklin’s ability to send his own letters without paying postage—he instead simply inscribed them with “Free.B.Franklin”—enabled him to correspond with other intellectuals in Europe. That helped to publicize Franklin’s achievements, “thereby helping to make Franklin into one of the world’s most admired Americans,” as Leonard writes. Stanford University historian Caroline Winterer, who has studied the 20,000 letters left behind by Franklin, describes him as “a man with a dynamic social network” comparable to our interconnected world today.
Britain Appoints Franklin as Postmaster of 13 Colonies
Franklin, a meticulous record-keeper, was so skillful at running postal operations in Philadelphia that in 1753, the British Crown appointed him as joint postmaster for all 13 colonies. Though he nominally shared authority with William Hunter, a Virginia-based printer, Hunter pretty much let Franklin call the shots, according to Leonard’s book. Franklin held that post for more than two decades, during which he orchestrated huge improvements in mail service, including establishing a regular schedule that allowed mail to move efficiently along post roads up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
Franklin “traveled widely to inspect postal routes, find the most reliable postal clerks to serve as his associates in the different towns and cities, and create a system of communication that would work well for riders of the post,” Mulford explains.
“Franklin had foresight. He was a good systems analyst,” Mulford says. “He was agreeable to work with, when others were agreeable. And he was an excellent trouble-shooter, able to figure out work-around solutions when plans went awry.”
Mail Delivery Time Is Cut, Newspaper Get Flat Rat
Eventually, by putting mail riders out on the roads at night, Franklin managed to cut the delivery time for a letter from Philadelphia to New York and receive a reply to just 24 hours.
Franklin also arranged for small, swift packet ships to transport mail to and from the West Indies and Canada, which complemented the transatlantic service that the British Crown provided from England, and established the first home-delivery system in the colonies, according to Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson. He even set up a dead-letter office in Philadelphia to handle undeliverable mail.
Another of Franklin’s reforms—after he’d already made his own fortune—was to issue an 1758 decree that all newspapers would be transported by postal riders for the same, uniformly low rate, according to Winifred Gallagher’s book How the Post Office Created America: A History. That greatly increased the colonists’ access to information, particularly about what was going on elsewhere in the world.
As colonial postmaster, Franklin did much of his work remotely. Starting in the late 1750s, he began spending much of his time in England, where he did his job through the mail, auditing postal statements from afar and implementing his decisions by letter. The British government didn’t mind, because by 1760, the postal operation in the colonies was profitable for the first time.
But Franklin’s involvement with the growing resistance to British taxation and rule eventually caused him to run afoul of British authorities.
Leaked Letters Lead to Franklin’s Dismissal
Things came to a head after Franklin received an anonymously-sent package of letters written by Thomas Hutchinson, the British governor of Massachusetts. Franklin gave them to a friend, who then leaked them to a Boston newspaper, and they caused an uproar.
“The letters [Franklin] sent over to Massachusetts from London showed the extent to which British leaders in the colonies sought the suppression of colonists at all costs,” Mulford says. As a result, Franklin “was rudely and summarily dismissed” from his postmaster-general position in January 1774.
After Franklin returned to America, the clockwork-like postal system he’d built started to fall apart without his management skills. The colonists began to set up their own independent post offices. A former postmaster from Providence, R.I., William Goddard, set up the Constitutional Post, an alternative service that allowed colonists to send letters to one another without the risk that the Crown’s postmasters would open and read them.
After Declaration of Independence, US Post Office Is Born
Goddard tried unsuccessfully to get the Continental Congress to adopt his makeshift service as the official mail system. But the delegates wanted something bigger and better. After two months of study, in July 1775 they offered Franklin the new job of Postmaster General, at a salary of $1,000—about $33,500 in today’s dollars—and authorized him to hire a staff. He was assigned to establish a new system of postal routes from Falmouth, Massachusetts (now Portland, Maine) to Savannah, Georgia., with as many connections in between as he saw fit.
Franklin hired his son-in-law-Richard Bache as his deputy, and the disappointed Goddard as chief surveyor, and set about replicating the system that he’d built for the British Crown. As only a man who already knew the territory could do, he quickly set up new post offices and hired local postmasters to run them. Unfortunately, few documents from Franklin’s term as Postmaster General remain to provide details of his decisions. But he was so successful at taking business away from the Crown’s mail service in the colonies that by Christmas that year, it was so starved for business it had to shut down, according to Gallagher.
Franklin also took advantage of his franking privilege to send out his usual prolific output of letters, playfully replacing his franking symbol with “B. Free Franklin” to show his defiance of the British.
Franklin served as Postmaster General for only about a year. A few months after the founding fathers declared independence in July 1776, Franklin was dispatched to France to perform another important mission as an ambassador to the court of King Louis XVI. But the postal system that Franklin helped build continued to flourish, and became a critical part of the new democracy. His achievements were honored by putting him, along with George Washington, on the first U.S. postage stamps in 1847.