John McLean, who died this week (April 4) in 1861, was—by his early 40s—one of the most important people in America. In fact, he oversaw what was, in the 1820s, the federal government’s largest, most extensive and arguably most important responsibility.
McLean was postmaster general. He was in charge of establishing post offices across America to deliver the mail to citizens increasingly hungry for news and information, but—unlike today—with very limited choices in how they received it. Indeed, the post office was America’s only national communications system and the postal department had more employees than the other federal bureaucracies combined. By 1830 there were 8,000 post offices in America, most established in response to the thousands of petitions to Congress from towns and villages wanting their own post office. That made McLean, who was postmaster general under presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, a very powerful person. So powerful, in fact, that he seriously thought of running for president himself.
This postal growth reflected the fact that America in the mid-18th Century was undergoing a communications revolution. More people were literate and more and more newspapers were springing up to serve them, meaning the general public was becoming better educated and better informed, two national goals the federal government was only too happy to encourage. As a result, McLean’s postal department charged lower postal rates to deliver printed material, such as newspapers, than it charged for hand-written letters, and technological advances in printing also fostered this print communications boom. By the late 1820s New York City alone had 160 newspapers, including the nation’s only newspaper for African-Americans.
In addition, as the nation’s only national communications system, the postal department was a major incentive toward improving the nation’s transportation system. McLean badgered both Congress and local authorities to improve the nation’s roads because the stage coaches that carried passengers also carried the mail. Steam boat lines depended on contracts to carry the mail, as did the railroads when they became prevalent, and the competition to earn postal contracts among both steam boats and railroads spurred even further technological improvements.
Interestingly, another reason for the local post office’s popularity was the federal government’s mandate that it be open seven days a week, making it the one business open on the Sabbath. And since most post offices also sold goods to the public, including alcohol, on Sundays they were often the most popular social club in town.
This infuriated both church and abolitionist groups whose members mounted a nationwide public relations campaign to revoke that post office loophole. And what was the most effective way to conduct that PR campaign? By mailing printed flyers via the post office.