Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Saving Mr. Zippy

The Post Office is in trouble, and it needs your help. With a projected loss of $15 billion dollars this fiscal year, which includes the $5.5 billion due to the Retirement Health Fund, the Post Office needs you! First, let's take a look at the history of the Post Office in the United States.

In the earliest days of the American colonies, the settlers relied upon one another to deliver messages between the colonies. These messengers included the colonists, slaves and even friendly Native Americans. The system worked fairly well for its time. But what about the correspondence going back to England, Holland, Germany, and all of the other countries from where the colonists originated? For the most part these messages were carried by ship's captains and deposited in the systems of the countries to which they were destined. The system worked okay, but it needed to be more organized. To that end, in 1639, the General Court of Massachusetts named a tavern in Boston, owned by Richard Fairbanks, to be the official depot for mail coming from, or going to, overseas locations. The tavern also served as the place from which mail received here in the colonies would be distributed.

This early system lead to the development of what became known as "the old Post Road", parts of which are still in existence between Boston and New York. The first regularly scheduled mail runs between New York and Boston began under New York's Governor Francis Lovelace in 1673.

In 1683, William Penn, then Governor of Pennsylvania, established postal service throughout Pennsylvania. It was a fairly simple affair, covering only the immediate area. Primarily they were tasked with the delivery of local documents, as well as the letters arriving by ship in Philadelphia from the old world to the residents in Pennsylvania. It was a good system for its time and place.

The Southern colonies, too, had their own method for the delivery of mail. They used slaves to transport documents between plantations. Failure to forward another person's mail was met with a fine, a hogs head of tobacco was the usual penalty.

The first real organization of the Post Office began in 1691 when the English crown gave a 21 year grant to a man named Thomas Neale. Neale had never even visited America, and with no desire to do so, appointed the Governor of New Jersey, Andrew Hamilton, as Deputy Postmaster General. Neale passed away in 1699, passing the torch back to Andrew Hamilton. Between that time and 1730, much remained as it was.

By 1730, Alexander Spotswood, a lieutenant governor of Virginia, was named as Deputy Postmaster General for the colonies. He appointed 31 year old Benjamin Franklin as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737. At the time Franklin was the publisher of The Pennsylvania Gazette.

Spotswood remained at the helm until 1739 when he was succeeded by Head Lynch, and then Elliot Benger in 1743. Both Lynch and Benger were from Virginia. When Benger died in 1753, Franklin was appointed, along with William Hunter, to be the Joint Postmasters General for all of the colonies. When Hunter died in 1761, John Foxcroft of New York succeeded him. He would serve until the outbreak of the American Revolution.

By this time, Franklin had already toured the colonies to inspect the post offices, which were still largely ensconced in General Stores and taverns. During this time Franklin made many changes and improvements to the service. He ordered new surveys for better roads, and added milestones on many of the main roads. This lead to new and shorter routes, and for the first time, mail was carried by horseback and stagecoach at night between Philadelphia and New York, cutting the travel time in half.

By 1760 the Post Office was operating at a surplus. The system was operated between Maine and Florida, with a route from New York to Canada as well.

With the coming of the American Revolution, most Americans eschewed the official Post Office in favor of other means to communicate with the various colonies. Benjamin Franklin was dismissed by the Crown for being in sympathy with the colonists. William Goddard set up a post office in Connecticut for inter colonial service. He appointed Franklin as Postmaster General. There were now 30 official stations operating across the colonies.

Between that time and the opening of the Western regions, the Post Office took on many different incarnations, including the famous Pony Express, which carried mail from coast to coast in as little as 5 days.

As the country continued to grow, so did the Post Office. And it has served us well for over 200 years. The latest news for this valuable institution is not good. With no money to plug that $15 billion dollar hole it seems that the Post Office may be looking at its demise. And that would be a shame. So, what can be done to save it?

First of all, revenues need to be increased. This can be done by not trying to undercut the private carriers. Instead, the Post Office should charge the same amount as the private carriers do for "junk" mail and other commercial uses. Minimum fees for the private companies need to be set, so as to avoid price wars between the Public and Private enterprises.

The loss of revenue due to the use of e-mails and e-cards, of which we are all guilty, needs to be made up for in other ways. The First Class postal rate needs to be set at a realistic rate, say about 75 cents per letter. We cannot let the Post Office simply go out of existence. Too much time and energy were expended to create it, only to let it slip away from us.

Send a letter to yourself. This should be easy; you know what you want to say, so you can just mail an empty envelope to yourself. Wouldn't it be nice to get a letter once in a while, along with all the "junk" mail? Another method would be for you to place one extra stamp, of any denomination, to the next thing you mail.

Finally, remember this, it still takes a Court Order to open your mail when it is sent by U.S. Postal Service. The Postmaster General is the one who has to approve the monitoring of the mails, which was last done during the Second World War. After 9-11, and the enactment of the Patriot Act, all private carriers were required to let law enforcement open any mail, or packages, carried by Fed Ex, UPS and all the others, without warrants, operating solely on "anonymous" tips. This runs so counter to who we are as a nation, that it sets one to wondering how this is considered to be "patriotic" at all. We have already given up many of our rights in regard to packages and e-mails carried privately; do we really want to cast aside the last truly protected service?

Perhaps I am being too emotional about the whole issue. It's just that I remember waiting for the mailman to come when I was a kid, hoping that the day would bring me that special letter I was waiting for, or perhaps some silly thing I had sent away for with my allowance and the required box tops from my cereal. At any rate, the Post Office is simply too good a thing to let it go without at least trying to keep it viable.

I'm printing this out for my mail carrier to read. I'm going to put it in my mailbox today with the red flag up. Then I'm going to mail myself a copy, with an extra stamp on it for luck.

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