Spooner vs. U.S. Postal System

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There
didn’t seem to be any way to lick the high cost of postage until
Lysander Spooner came to the rescue

Since 1971,
the cost of sending a letter has gone up 150 percent. Our mail service
seems slower each day. And, there appears to be no feasible solution
or alternative in sight. Like the weather, everyone talks and complains
about the high postal rates and apparently slower service, but no
one knows what to do about them.

Perhaps we
need another Lysander Spooner. Lysander who? The Lysander Spooner,
a fiercely independent New Englander who went to battle and brought
about a change in the postal system. He could also be called the
"Father of the three-cent
stamp
."

Born on a farm
in Athol, MA, in 1808, young Spooner studied law, pamphleteered
and crusaded for dozens of causes before hitting upon an adversary
worthy of his mettle: The United States Post Office, and he almost
put it out of business!

By 1844, the
spiraling postal rtes had so irked Spooner that he began an extensive
study of the situation. There was no question that rates were much
too high. It cost 18 3/4 cents to send a letter from Boston to New
York and 25 cents to send on all the way to Washington DC. A letter
sent from Boston to Albany, NY written on a 1/4-ounce sheet of paper
and carried by the Western Railroad, cost 2/3 as much as the freight
charge for carrying a barrel of flour the same distance. Spooner’s
summation of his study was succinct: high cost and no service.

People were
trying numerous means to circumvent high postage rates and, for
the most part, were failing. To those who tried to out-maneuver
the Post Office, Spooner gave a loud "hurrah," but he
could see that they were fighting a losing battle. With no other
solution in sight, he decided to go into competition with the U.S.
Government.

To begin with,
Spooner couldn’t understand why the Post Office should have a monopoly
on mail delivery. He was schooled enough in law, however, to know
that the Constitution ordered Congress to provide for mail delivery
and it had done so with a postal department. But the wily Spooner
found a loophole – the Constitution did not declare that a private
citizen could not do likewise.

Spooner squared
off for battle! With the loopholes his main ammunition, he organized
his own postal service and audaciously named it "The American
Letter Mail Company." The company offered to deliver letters,
with no limit on weight at reduced rates. He even ran an ad on the
front page of the New York Daily Tribune with the following
information: "AMERICAN POST OFFICE – The American Letter
Mail Company has established post offices in New York, Philadelphia,
Baltimore and Boston, and will deliver letter daily from each city
to the others – twice a day between New York and Philadelphia.
Postage 6 1/4 cents per each half-ounce, payable in advance always.
Stamps 20 for a dollar. Their purpose it to carry letters by the
most rapid conveyances, and at the cheapest rates and to extend
their operations (as fast as patronage will justify) over the principal
routes of the country, so as to give the public the most extensive
facilities for correspondence that can be afforded at a uniform
rate.

"The Company
design also (if sustained by the public) is to thoroughly agitate
the questions, and test the Constitutional right of the competition
in the business of carrying letters – the ground on which they
assert this right are published and for sale at the post offices
in pamphlet form."

The public
enthusiastically approved the venture. Congress, however, was sputtering
and the Postal Department was howling – all of Washington was
enraged. How dare Spooner do this? How dare he so openly flout the
Constitution? Government postal revenues took a nose dive while
"The American Letter Mail Company" went merrily on its
way picking up the postal business everywhere.

Washington
lawmakers had no intention of sitting still for any "that Spooner’s
shenanigans." The midnight oil burned as attorneys pored over
their books. Soon, the suits against Spooner and his cohorts began.
Railroad heads were given full warning that government mails would
be removed unless space and passage were refused to private letter
carriers. It was "round one" for the government when an
agent of Spooner’s company was found guilty and fined for transporting
letters in a railroad car over a postroad of the United States.

The "round
two" went to Spooner when a U.S. District Judge advised a jury
that owners of conveyances were not liable under law if, unknown
to the owners, a letter carrier brought mail aboard a train of steamboat.
The "not guilty" verdict was sustained by the U.S. Circuit
Court which expressed doubt that the U.S. had the right to monopolize
the transportation of mail. This was tantamount to a commendation
of Spooner’s theories.

For the postal
officials it was a low blow and they sought further legal means
to put an end to Spooner and his trouble-making company. More court
reversals followed. Finally, the Postmaster General felt he had
to bow to the issues and went before Congress to plead for the authority
to lower postal rates.

In March, 1845,
a reduction of postal rates was approved and put into effect that
July. Letters weighing less than a half ounce could be sent any
distance under 300 miles for five cents. Even the rates for newspapers
were reevaluated and changed so they could be mailed without charge
within a 30-mile radius.

Spooner, feeling
that his efforts and his company were doing a great deal of good
for the citizens of the land, wasn’t through fighting. His counteraction
caused even greater consternation to his opponents – he lowered
his rates. So the battle of law and loopholes continued.

In 1851, Congress
again lowered rates and simultaneously enacted a law to protect
the government’s monopoly on the distribution of mail. Whereas threats
of jail had not fazed or dampened Spooner’s zeal in the fight, the
latter move by Congress forced him into defeat.

Later that
year, Congress lowered the postal rate to three cents for delivery
anywhere in the country. In 1958, it had climbed to four cents and
has not stopped climbing since.

As for Spooner,
his great battle had ended and his company was disbanded. He died
in 1887, his death barely noticed by the public. No one seemed to
remember the man who had been able to show everyone what old-fashioned
courage and enterprise, plus competition, could do to change things.
He had proven that a cheaper and more efficient postal service was
possible.

Perhaps this
country would welcome a revival of the Lysander Spooner’s spirit
in more areas than one!

Reprinted
from American Legion
Magazine
, January 1981.

Lysander
Spooner
(1808–1887) was a lawyer, writer, entrepreneur,
and libertarian activist.

©
1981 American Legion Magazine

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