Postmasters general, kings of political patronage?

Postmasters general were once powerful figures who were members of the cabinet and often among a president's closest political and personal advisers. What happened?

In 1775, the Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin as the first postmaster general.

It’s a government job that’s older than the Declaration of Independence. It’s been filled by powerful and important people – including the cleverest of the Founding Fathers. It’s a post that’s been crucial to America’s identity and economic growth.

It’s the position of (cue Sousa march music) the United States postmaster general!

Come back here – don’t go wandering off toward the “pictures of the week” page. Sure, you might think that running the Postal Service is sort of a downer today, given that it’s on track to lose $7 billion this year.

But before FedEx and e-mail, before proposals to can Saturday delivery and shut some post offices, the postmasters general were people of consequence. They were often among a president’s closest political and personal advisers.

They were even members of the cabinet – up there with the secretaries of State, Treasury, and so forth – for 142 years.

Why? Two reasons.

1. Prior to the invention of Twitter, the delivery of actual pieces of paper to your home or business was a very big deal.

2. The Postal Service was a huge job bank. Postmasters general were thus kings of political patronage – until civil service reforms ended 

Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general. The Second Continental Congress appointed him to the position on July 25, 1775. (Alert readers will note that’s before the US was even a country.) He got that patronage thing rolling right away by appointing his son-in-law to be the new postal service’s comptroller.

Franklin also surveyed post roads and set up post offices and a simple accounting system, in essence founding the service, according to USPS official history.

Montgomery Blair was postmaster general in the Civil War, a hard-line Marylander and key member of Abraham Lincoln’s famous “team of rivals” cabinet.

Blair pioneered delivery of mail to homes and offices by salaried postal carriers beginning in 1863.

Other notable postmasters general include James Farley, who was head of the Postal Service and the Democratic National Committee under FDR; and Larry O’Brien, manager of JFK’s presidential campaign, who was appointed to the postal post by LBJ.

The fun ended in 1970, when Richard Nixon signed a reorganization act that set up the Postal Service as a semiautonomous entity and kicked the postmaster general out of the cabinet.

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