Think back to the early days of our country. We were a collection of 13 disparate colonies, each with a unique reason for being. We had just won our independence by throwing off an authoritarian king and now we were suspicious of a strong central government. How do you pull a country like that together?
Two words: post office. The U.S. post office was the one institution that could forge a communications system to unite the colonies into a nation. With local offices dotting the countryside, people could identify with it — a symbol of a central government, yes, but with a local presence. You’d probably known your postmaster all your life.
How the Post Office Created America: A History by Winifred Gallagher explains just how that came about. Gallagher relates how the postal network grew to keep pace with an expanding country, and how it adapted to changing times. Go back in time and you probably wouldn’t recognize the original system: people would have to make a periodic trek to the postmaster, then pay whatever postage was required to get their mail. Rural free delivery was more than just a slogan; it was actually a radical idea at the time.
Today’s postal system is easy to criticize, easier to take for granted, and may even be obsolete thanks to modern communications technology. But it’s a major reason why we’ve been able to forge the world’s most powerful nation out of 13 humble colonies.