On this day in 1792, President George Washington signs legislation creating the U.S. Postal Service.
Prior to the American Revolution, correspondence between parties depended largely upon hired private couriers, friends and the help of merchants. Individual colonies set up informal post offices in taverns and shops where horse-drawn carriages or riders would pick up and drop off mail en route. In 1707, the British government established the position of Postmaster General to better coordinate postal service in the colonies, though the business was still conducted largely by private individuals. In 1737, a 31-year-old American colonist named Benjamin Franklin took over as Postmaster General and oversaw the colonial postal service from England until he was dismissed for subversive acts on behalf of the rebellious colonies in 1774. Franklin then returned to America and helped create a rival postal system for the emerging nation.
Based on Franklin’s recommendations, the Continental Congress created the Constitutional Post in 1775. During the Revolutionary War, then-Commanding General George Washington depended heavily on the postal service to carry messages between the Army and Congress. Although Article IX of the Articles of Confederation written in 1781 authorized Congress to [establish and regulate] post offices from one State to another, the formation of an official U.S. Postal Service remained a work in progress.
Finally, on February 20, 1792, President Washington formally created the U.S. Postal Service with the signing of the Postal Service Act, which outlined in detail Congressional power to establish official mail routes. The act allowed for newspapers to be included in mail deliveries and made it illegal for postal officials to open anyone’s mail. In 1792, a young American nation of approximately 4 million people enjoyed federally funded postal services including 75 regional post offices and 2,400 miles of postal routes. The cost of sending a letter ranged from 6 cents to 12 cents. Under Washington, the Postal Service administration was headquartered in Philadelphia. In 1800, it followed other federal agencies to the nation’s new capital in Washington, D.C.