A Postal Revolution and a Political Upheaval


The chief problem that Blair encountered when he became postmaster general was the postal debt. When he entered office at the beginning of 1861, the postal deficit was $5,656,705.(1) The Department had experienced similar deficits since 1855 when prepayment of postage had been made compulsory.  Confusion over the demands of pre-paid postage along with consumer reluctance to comply with the rules was a contributing factor to the deficit. Congress was reluctant to sufficiently increase the nation’s postal budget. To combat this issue, Blair sought to enforce prepayment of postage across the nation. It had not been uncommon for postmasters to neglect the collection of postage on printed materials, something that was going to change.(2) During fiscal year 1863, almost 200 thousand letters were held because of unpaid postage.(3)

Blair and his Department were in the midst of a continuing debate over the role of the Post Office. Was it to continue serving primarily as a national information transportation system, with lower rates for publications and higher rates for individuals? Or was it to become an informational support system for all Americans? Was its purpose, as it was in 1776, to carry newspapers and their content as far and wide as possible (and with low rates to support publishers)? Or was it, as lower letter rates and increasing public literacy were leading it, to support the communication needs of all Americans, regardless of content?

In the midst of this changing postal world Blair argued that the Department could not serve the public to its fullest extent until it was functioning internally to the best of its ability. In that instance he argued, although lowering postage rates would benefit the public, to ensure optimal internal operations the department had to turn the red ink black. One of the best ways to accomplish this was to keep postage at its then-current rate, until the department could afford to lower it.

Blair didn’t just look at the American public for his cost-cutting measures. He looked at the expensive process of “franking mail.” The franking system allows government officials to substitute their signature for postage.(4) But in need of Congressional support for his reforms, he left their franking system alone. But a group using the frank that was well under Blair’s control was the nation’s postmasters. It had been given to postmasters making above a certain salary for use in the mailing of official government materials. However, due to a lack of supervision and organization, this privilege began to be used for personal mail; in some cases, family members were also benefitting from the frank. The worst offenders were those postmasters who had careers in addition to their postmaster position and would also use their frank for business purposes. In 1863, he reported:

“The personal privilege of franking travels with the person possessing it and can be exercised in but one place at the same time. The postmaster cannot leave his frank behind him for the usage of his family when he is traveling on pleasure or business. Therefore, if a person enjoying the privilege of a frank, is known not to be in the vicinity, the frank is to be disregarded, the letter rated, and postage marked due.”(5)

That same year the rules regarding the frank were tightened further and now applicable to all executive departments. He noted that “All correspondence addressed to any executive department…must be prepaid…except official communications written by some officer of the department...it is required that the officer shall sign his name, with his official designation, under the words ‘official business.’”(6) Blair firmly believed in an efficient and accessible post office. By abusing the frank, postmasters were not only contributing to an immense amount of money lost to the Post Office Department, but they were also putting themselves above the American people, whom they should have been serving.(7)

1) Rita L. Moroney, Montgomery Blair: Postmaster General (Washington D.C.: United States Post Office Department, 1963), 23.
2) Kelly, 10.
3) Blair, Montgomery, “Report of the Postmaster General, Post Office Department, October 31, 1863,” in Message
of the President of the United States and Accompanying Documents, to the Two House of Congress at the Commencement of the First Session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress, Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1864, 19.
4) Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “frank, v. 2.” OED Online, accessed July 17, 2014.
5) Montgomery Blair, Post Office Directory for 1863, revised and corrected by John Disturnell (New York: J.H. Colton Publishers, 1863), 19, quoted in Kelly, 11-12.
6) Montgomery Blair. “Report of the Postmaster General…October 31, 1863,” 21.
7) Davis, 152.