The exchange of information in and between the thirteen colonies prior to the American Revolution depended on the rudimentary and relatively limited royal postal system that Benjamin Franklin took over as Postmaster General in 1775 when the Continental Congress established the American postal system. During the revolution, postal service became so slow and unreliable that prominent military commanders “established their own independent teams of postriders” rather than rely on the existing postal system to convey information. By 1788, only 69 postal offices operated in cities located primarily along the Atlantic seaboard. Following the revolution, however, the postal system emerged as “the only long-distance communications technology” for keeping the citizens of the new republic informed. Congress recognized the importance of receiving and transmitting information by passing the Post Office Act of 1792, a key event in America’s communications revolution. The provisions of the Act enabled the system to expand rapidly so that by 1828, with 7,500 post offices, it was the largest in the world.
The Postal Act enabled the widespread dissemination of information throughout the expanding republic by allowing newspapers to be mailed at extremely low rates, thereby accelerating the growth of the press. The Act also established procedures to control the designation of new post routes so that as America gradually expanded westward, “far-flung citizenry” enjoyed access to “subsidized, time-specific information on business and public affairs.” The extension of post roads into America’s interior essentially created the stagecoach industry, through which the federal government encouraged the settlement and development of the frontier. The arrival of the mail by stagecoach in cities and towns became a major event, especially since merchants routinely sent cash and other forms of negotiable currency through the mail to settle their accounts. As has been depicted so often in early Western movies, bandits occasionally stopped and robbed “the stage,” yet merchants would not have continued to use the mail if it had not been, for the most part, safe and reliable. The early postal system’s most crucial role, however, was in satisfying the public’s voracious demand for information and creating a national business community through its transmission (via newspapers) of market information.
The volume of information conveyed by the postal system increased dramatically during the early nineteenth century. During the 40 years from 1800 to 1840, the annual number of newspapers transmitted by mail increased from approximately two million to forty million, which reflected “the determination of ordinary Americans to maintain close ties with the wider world.” But more information did not lead to greater social harmony. Until the policy was changed in 1912, many post offices around the country remained open on Sunday, which caused significant conflict between church and government officials. Nineteenth-century abolitionists regularly used the postal system in their moral crusade against slavery, which frequently caused social unrest, especially in the South. Finally, the early postal system routinely excluded women and blacks from employment, thereby institutionalizing sexual and racial discrimination. Yet despite these problems and conflicts, the development of the early American postal system represented a vital part of the first communications revolution in American history. It facilitated the exchange of information on an unprecedented scale and constituted perhaps the most important element in the history of the information age in America.
Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1998), 27.
Richard R. John, “Recasting the Information Infrastructure for the Industrial Age.” In Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. and James W. Cortada, eds. A Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 58.
Ibid., 58-59. John contends that the Post Office Act of 1792 “deserves to be remembered as a key event in the history of information in the United States” (58). The Act “had three main provisions. First, it barred government officials from opening personal letters to monitor domestic subversion; second, it admitted newspapers into the mail at extremely low rates; and third, it transferred control over the designation of new post routes from the executive branch to Congress” (58-59). See also John, Spreading the News, 31.
John, “Recasting,” 60. See also John, Spreading the News, 5. John asserts that by 1828, “the American postal system had almost twice as many offices as the postal system in Great Britain and over five times as many offices as the postal system in France. This translated into 74 post offices for every 100,000 inhabitants compared with 17 for Great Britain and 4 for France.”
John, “Recasting,” 59.
 It is interesting to note that the western edge of the University of Mary Washington’s main campus is adjacent to Jefferson Davis Highway, or Route 1, originally known as “The King’s Highway” (named after King Charles II), the major north-south post road that connected Boston with Charleston, South Carolina during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Prior to 1779, the Kings Highway followed the same route as US Highway 1 from Alexandria to Fredricksburg, then Virginia Highway 2 through Bowling Green, then southeast on Virginia Highway 721. The old route crossed the Mattaponi River into King William County, then the Pamunkey River into New Kent County, then on to Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Hampton, where a ferry crossing landed at Norfolk, Virginia. After the capital of Virginia was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1779, the Post Road approximated what is now Route 1, connecting Richmond with Fredericksburg and Washington, D.C. From Boston to Charleston on the King’s Highway was about 1300 miles, and it was possible to travel this road by freight wagon or stagecoach that could average 20-25 miles per day, depending on the weather and the condition of the road at the time. Beverly Whitaker, “The Kings Highway,” http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~gentutor/King.pdf. See also http://www.carolana.com/NC/Royal_Colony/the_kings_highway.html.
John, Spreading the News, 112-115. Federal post offices did not have their own buildings until after the Civil War. Early post offices were frequently located in hotels or stores, law offices, or sometimes in the postmaster’s house. As John points out, many post offices were located in country stores, “a friendly, inviting place where men, women, and even a dog or two could come together to get their mail and catch up on the affairs of the day” (115). See also John, “Recasting,” 63-65.
John, “Recasting,” 63.
John, Spreading the News, 169-205. It was official policy for a post office to open when mail was received, and many businessmen wanted to collect their mail on Sunday. See also John, “Recasting,” 63-64.
John, Spreading the News, 257-280. In 1835, a group of men broke into the post office in Charleston, South Carolina to destroy several thousand abolitionist periodicals that a New York-based anti-slave society had transmitted in support of emancipation.
Ibid., 138-139. Beginning in 1802, Congress decreed that “no one besides a ‘free white person’ would be permitted to carry the mail,” and “women held [only] eighty-one postmasterships in the entire United States in 1852.”