In a Washington Post article on the U.S. Postal Service’s continuing problems, Ed O’Keefe calls the USPS “a quasi-government agency enshrined in the Constitution but required by law to act like a business.”
But there is no “quasi” about it: the USPS is a government agency. It may be different than the standard government agency because it operates like a business, but it’s Uncle Sam’s business.
[The Congress shall have the power] to establish Post Offices and Post Roads.
The U.S. Constitution, in 1789, authorized Congress to establish “Post Offices and post Roads” but, unlike the Articles of Confederation, did not explicitly establish an exclusive monopoly. The first substantive postal law, enacted in 1792, listed post roads to be established, reflecting the traditional concept of postal service as a long-distance transport. It authorized the Postmaster General to enter into contracts for the carriage of “letters, newspapers, and packets” but limited the postal monopoly to “letter or letters, packet or packets, other than newspapers.”
Until the Postal Act of 1863, the Post Office remained essentially a contracting office for intercity transportation services. In fiscal 1862, costs of intercity and foreign transportation constituted 63 percent of all expenses. Before 1863, intercity letters were either held at the destination post office for collection or delivered by a “letter carrier” who acted as independent contractor and charged the addressee two cents, one of which went to the Post Office.
A person could drop letters at a post for delivery by a letter carrier within the same city, but that was a secondary service as far as the Post Office was concerned; even after the 1863 act, such “drop letters” were considered “not transmitted in the mails of the United States.”
Delivery of local, intracity letters was pioneered by private companies such as Boyd’s Despatch in New York City and Blood’s Despatch in Philadelphia. One authority counted 147 private local postal companies. The “locals” introduced adhesive postage stamps at least as early as 1841. The Post Office did not introduce stamps until 1847 and did not require their use until 1851. Efforts by the Post Office to suppress the locals failed when, in 1860, a federal court ruled that the postal monopoly pertained only to the transportation of letters over “post roads” between post offices and did not prohibit the delivery of letters within a single postal district.