I'm somebody with plenty of postal employees in my family tree – a key example being my grandfather, whose long and productive career as a mail carrier had him delivering letters in such varied locales as the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II and the campus of Harvard University. Not surprisingly, I have always had a strong interest in postal history and in particular how the transport of mail from point A to point B has evolved throughout our nation's existence.
That's why I have such a fascination with the early post roads and their role in facilitating the delivery of U.S. mail. A recent example of this fascination unexpectedly came about this past summer while vacationing in Maine. My family and I were out for a Thursday afternoon drive along that state's coast when we found ourselves traveling through the picturesque town of Wiscasset.
Now for a lot of people the immediate impression of Wiscasset is that it's very much an inviting and scenic New England town to visit. And those who have some familiarity with the place would be more inclined to recall such historical facts as the town's one-time preeminence as the busiest seaport north of Boston and how it once housed the world's smallest church. Not me. I instantly associated Wiscasset with the northernmost point of a network of post roads that were authorized in 1792 and stretched along the Eastern Seaboard all the way to Savannah, Georgia. Can you blame me?
A little historical background . . . The federal measure authorizing those roads was specifically the Post Office Act of 1792. President George Washington, who signed that bill into law, was a staunch advocate of post roads and even emphasized in one message to Congress “the expedition, safety, and facility of communication” that those mail-delivery routes made possible.
One of that law's far-reaching provisions involved officially accepting that era's most popular source of public information – newspapers – as a regular mail-delivery item and at relatively low rates to help increase demand for that means of communication. The law also paved the way for enlarging the scope of the post roads by clarifying the constitutional role of Congress in creating those routes.
The Post Office Act of 1792 therefore marked a break with the past and ushered in a new period that focused on how those roads could even more closely connect the then-new nation and go beyond just the existing framework between Wiscasset and Savannah. The results speak for themselves: between 1792 and 1828, the number of post roads grew dramatically from about 5,600 to 114,000 miles. Those roads stretched out into areas well beyond the seacoast, including Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and further west.
The long-term legacy of those early U.S. post roads included regularly linking more Americans than before with each other and news of current events; providing an important economic between far-flung communities across the nation and its territories; and setting the stage for an enhanced federal role for the highways we travel and depend on today. That's a lot to think about, especially if you find yourself taking a leisurely summer afternoon drive through good old Wiscasset – or receiving and reading today's mail.