Constitution Post: Article I, Section 8, Clause 7

If you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t expect that the constitution speaks to things such as postal service and specifically delegates this power as Congress’s jurisdiction.  Today, as we look at Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 — the Postal Clause — I hope to share what I’ve learned about this aspect of American culture and government.  But, before we launch into the text of the Constitution, here is some background information on the United States Postal Service. 

America’s postal service was established in July of 1775, and Benjamin Franklin was the first Postmaster General.  This service would have been very important to society; for example, consider that Adam and Abigail Adams sent each other over 1,100 letters, both within the states and while Mr. Adams was away serving in diplomatic roles. 

To this day, even considering the technological advancement of the modern age, the postal service is absolutely essential to American society, both for individuals and businesses. According to research from Gallup, “In a world of email, texts and social media, 41% of Americans nevertheless look forward to checking what is in their mailbox each day.  Americans 65 and older are more likely than younger adults to enjoy checking the mail, but 36% of Americans under 30 also feel this way.”

With that in mind, let’s look at the Constitution, which states:

The Congress shall have Power To…establish Post Offices and post Roads…

Since the “Power To…establish Post Offices and post Roads” was delegated to Congress under the Articles of Confederation as well, nothing significant changed, except the delegation of additional power — establishing post roads. According to the Heritage Guide to the Constitution, by September of 1789, “seventy-five post offices and over 2,000 miles of post roads already existed.” 

There was, and has been, some debate over the specific meaning of this clause in a couple different ways.  For example, there was disagreement over whether or not Congress had power to build new roads and buildings for postal services, or if they simply decided which existing roads and buildings they could use.

Again, according to the Heritage Guide to the Constitution, “…in 1833, Justice Joseph Story declared in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States that the words ‘to establish’ encompass a power to create roads as well as to designate them.  Story maintained, however, that once built, a post road is subject to the laws of the state.”

Another area of interest is the Supreme Court’s various decisions regarding the postal service’s power to regulate what can or cannot be mailed.  For instance, in Ex parte Jackson (1877), this was decided:

“The validity of legislation describing what should be carried, and its weight and form, and the charges to which it should be subjected, has never been questioned….The power possessed by Congress embraces the regulation of the entire Postal System of the country.  The right to designate what shall be carried necessarily involves the right to determine what shall be excluded.”

Regardless of these various decisions, the Heritage Guide to the Constitution states that “The Supreme Court has affirmed that, like all other delegated powers, the post-office power is subject to extrinsic restraints such as the First Amendment.  For example, in Postal Service v. Council of Greenburgh Civic Ass’ns, the Supreme Court acknowledged the broad sweep of the Post Office Clause, all the while holding that its broad power cannot be exercised in a way that abridges the rights protected under the First Amendment.”

With this understanding, here are just a few of the amazing things I learned about the United States Postal Service:

To understand the scope and power delegated in the Constitution, as of 2014, America had 31,000 post offices.  In 2016 alone, USPS processed and delivered 154.2 billion pieces of mail all over the country.  According to USPS’s Postal Facts 2016, “The United States Postal Service delivers more mail to more addresses in a larger geographical area than any other post in the world.  The Postal Service delivers to nearly 155 million addresses in every state, city and town in the country.  Everyone living in the United States and its territories has access to postal products and services and pays the same for a First-Class postage stamp regardless of their location.” 

Here are several more interesting facts about the USPS (also taken from Postal Facts 2016):

  • “The Postal Service has the country’s largest retail network — larger than McDonald’s, Starbucks and Walmart combined, domestically.
  • “The Postal Service processes and delivers nearly half of the world’s mail — 47 percent.
  • “The Postal Service embraces the heroic service of the United States’ armed forces.  More than 113,000 veterans are employed with the organization, and more than 140 stamps have been issued that reflect the nation’s military history, including the current Medal of Honor series.  (As of Jan 2015)
  • “Mail is a great communication tool.  It’s personal.  You can keep letters and cards forever.  There are no monthly plans.  No signal outages.  No roaming charges. Regardless of geographic location, anyone can send a letter for just 49¢ to anywhere in the United States, its territories and U.S. military and diplomatic installations worldwide.
  • “Mail is reliable, trusted and secure — more than 200 federal laws protect the sanctity of the U.S. Mail.  These laws are enforced by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, one of the oldest law enforcement agencies in the country.  U.S. Postal Inspectors are federal agents, mandated to safeguard the nation’s mail — including the people who move it and the customers who use it.
  • “The U.S. Postal Service is the core of the $1.4 trillion mailing industry in this country that employs more than 7.5 million people.
  • “The Postal Service receives NO tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.”

I believe it’s fair to say that even postal services comprise one of the many blessings of our constitution.  Government affects so many aspects of life, and that could be for good or for bad.  This aspect is definitely for good.  The United States Postal Service is a wonderful tool that we, or someone we know, uses every day. 

Don’t take anything for granted!

Julia

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