Modern technology continues to surprise us with new ways of
communicating. Cell phones,e-mail, faxes, web sites, online
conferences, instant messaging, and "beaming" information
between pda's are all recent developments. But perhaps because
there were fewer options available in the eighteenth century
communications circuit, some of those options were exploited
more fully in the 1770's than they might be in the present day.
The News Was Old Before You Got It --
The Challenge of Communicating in Colonial America
Most of the people residing in America in the year before the
revolutionary identified themselves as English. Although they
were eager for news from England, such information was rare.
A letter from a relative or the return of a sailor or traveler
would bring a report, but even then the "news" was
likely to be less than fresh since the voyage from the mother
country generally took at least three months (and during the
winter months could not be made at all). A few members of the
elite were willing to pay the expense of a subscription to an
English newspaper or journal, and a few owners of taverns used
their English publications as an enticement to prospective customers.
Pay for your food and drink and get the news for free.
Cities and towns with active ports could get their news, whether
in person, by mail, or in print via ship. For a broader dissemination
of information, you needed an effective system of transportation
and communication. This matter weighed heavily on the mind of
Benjamin Franklin, who was busy attempting to establish a Society
of Useful Knowledge in the hopes of bridging the gaps between
the colonies by improving the circulation of information.
The first Drudgery of Settling new Colonies, which confines
the Attention of People to mere Necessaries, is now pretty
well over; and there are many in every Province in Circumstances
that set them at Ease, and afford Leisure to cultivate
the finer Arts, and improve the common Stock of Knowledge.
To such of these who are Men of Speculation, many Hints
must from time to time arise, many Observations occur,
which if well-examined, pursued and improved, might produce
Discoveries to the Advantage of some or all of the_British_
Plantations, or to the Benefit of Mankind in general.
But . .. from the Extent of the Country such Persons
are widely separated, and seldom can see and converse
or be acquainted with each other, so that many useful
Particulars remain uncommunicated, die with the Discoverers,
and are lost to Mankind . . . .
One of Franklin's Solutions to the "Old News" Problem
Franklin therefore proposed that "One Society be formed
of Virtuosi or ingenious Men residing in the colonies,"
and that their main job would be "to maintain a constant
correspondence." More specifically, they were to:
meet once a Month, or oftner, at their own Expence, to
communicate to each other their Observations, Experiments,
_&c._ to receive, read and consider such Letters,
Communications, or Queries as shall be sent from distant
Members; to direct the Dispersing of Copies of such Communications
as are valuable, to other distant Members, in order to
procure their Sentiments thereupon, _&c._
It seems clear that Franklin was hoping to improve
the intellectual -- and consequently practical -- conditions of
America and to initiate a conversation among some of the leading
figures of each colony so that they could become partners in a
community of thought. Critical to the success of this plan, however,
was the ability to convey letters to and from Philadelphia in
a regular fashion. For this purpose, Franklin placed his hopes
on the postal system, and hoped "That by Permission of the
Postmaster-General, such Communications [would] pass between the
Secretary of the Society and the Members, Postage-free.
Franklin's Other Solution:
The Establishment of the American Postal System
In 1710, the English Parliament passed the Post Office Act
that called for the creation of a postal system in the American
colonies. The network was designed to be controlled by the postmaster
general of London with the aid of a deputy in New York City.
This arrangement was altered in 1753 and Benjamin Franklin from
Philadelphia and William Hunter of Virginia were appointed to
serve jointly as postmasters general for the thirteen colonies.
The excerpt below from "Postal Services in
the Colonies, 1592-1775," an article that appeared in March
1891 in The Southern Philatelist 2
The first Parliamentary Act for the establishment of
a postoffice in the English American Colonies was passed
in April, 1692, when a royal patent was granted to Thomas
Neale for the purpose. He was to transport letters and
packets 'at such rates as the planters should agree to
Rates of postage were accordingly fixed and authorized,
and measures were taken to establish a postoffice in each
town in Virginia, when Hale [?] began his operations.
Massachusetts and other Colonies soon passed postal laws,
and a very imperfect postoffice system was established.
Neale's patent expired in 1710, when Parliament extended
the English postal system to the Colonies. The chief office
was established in New York, where letters were conveyed
by regular packets across the Atlantic.
A line of postoffices was soon after established on Neale's
old routes, north to the present City of Portsmouth, N.H.,
and south to Philadelphia, and irregularly extended a
few years later, to Williamsburg, Va. The post left for
the South as often as letters enough were deposited to
pay the expense. The rates were fixed, and the post-rider
had certain privileges to travel. Finally an irregular
postal communication was established with Charleston.
In 1753 Dr. Franklin was appointed Deputy Postmaster-General
for the Colonies. It was a lucrative office, and he held
it until 1774, when he was dismissed because of his active
sympathy with the colonists in their quarrel with the
Ministry. For a while the colonial postal system was in
confusion. William Goddard, a printer, went from colony
to colony, making efforts to establish a 'Constitutional
Postoffice,' in opposition to the 'Royal Mail.'
When, in 1775, almost every vestige of royal power was
swept from the Colonies, the Continental Congress appointed
(July 26) Dr. Franklin Postmaster-General. In the autumn
of 1776, when Independence had been declared, and Franklin
sailed for France, the whole number of postoffices in
the United States was 75; length of post routes, 1,875
miles; revenue for about fifteen months, $27,985; annual
expenditures, $32,142. (pp. 87-88)
The development of an effective circuit of communications
was critical to the success of the revolution. For example, when
the people of Boston met to discuss their concerns about the British
embargo on imports into their harbor, the ideas generated by the
meeting were committed to paper and sent to people throughout
the colonies. Regular committees of correspondence were established
and riders were assigned to carry documents between colonies.
The effective exploitation of the postal system and other systems
of communication enabled the revolutionary leaders to connect
people who lived within distinctive cultures and dispersed across
a vast landscape. This is what made it possible for Americans
a shared way of looking at things and a sense of community that
transcended local boundaries. This is, at least in part,
what made it possible for people who had thought of themselves
as "Englishmen" in America to come to see themselves
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