In the seven decades from its establishment in 1775 to the commercialization of the electric telegraph in 1844, the American postal system spurred a communications revolution no less far-reaching than the subsequent revolutions associated with the telegraph, telephone, and computer. This book tells the story of that revolution and the challenge it posed for American business, politics, and cultural life.
During the early republic, the postal system was widely hailed as one of the most important institutions of the day. No other institution had the capacity to transmit such a large volume of information on a regular basis over such an enormous geographical expanse. The stagecoaches and postriders who conveyed the mail were virtually synonymous with speed.
In the United States, the unimpeded transmission of information has long been hailed as a positive good. In few other countries has informational mobility been such a cherished ideal. Richard John shows how postal policy can help explain this state of affairs. He discusses its influence on the development of such information-intensive institutions as the national market, the voluntary association, and the mass party. He traces its consequences for ordinary Americans, including women, blacks, and the poor. In a broader sense, he shows how the postal system worked to create a national society out of a loose union of confederated states. This exploration of the role of the postal system in American public life provides a fresh perspective not only on an important but neglected chapter in American history, but also on the origins of some of the most distinctive features of American life today.
[A] splendid new book...that gives the lie to any notion that 'government' and 'administration' were 'absent' in early America.
This well-researched and elegantly written book will become a model for historians attempting to link public policy to cultural and political change...[It] will engage not only historians of the early republic, but all scholars interested in the relationship between state and society.
The strength of the book is...the author's ability to untangle the thousands of social, political, economic, and cultural threads of the postal fabric and to rearrange them into a clear and compelling social history.
Richard R. John provides an insightful cultural history of the often-overlooked American postal system, concentrating on its preeminent status for long-distance communication between its birth in 1775 and the commercialization of the electric telegraph in 1844...John effectively draws upon government documents, newspapers, travelogues, and contemporary social and political histories to argue that the postal system causes and mirrors dramatic changes in American public life during this period...John focuses his study on the communication revolution of the past, yet his meticulous analysis of the complex motives forming the postal institution and its policies relate to such current controversies as those that surround the transmission of information in cyberspace. These contemporary disputes highlight the power of the government in shaping the communication of the people. John privileges the postal institution as the reigning communication system, yet he links it with the developing ideology of the nation, and the scope of his study ensures its value--in the disciplines of communication studies, literature, history, and political science, among others--as a history of the past and present.
Spreading the News exemplifies the kind of sophisticated and nuanced research that US postal history has long needed. Richard R. John breaks from the internalist, antiquarian tradition characteristic of so many post office histories to place the postal system at the centre of American national development.
[John] presents a thoroughly researched and well-written book...[which will give] insight into the history of the post office and its impact on American life.
It is surely true that in Richard John the post has had the good fortune to have found its proper historian, one capable of appreciating the complex design and social importance of the means a people use to distribute information. He has also accomplished the impressive feat of gathering together the pieces of a postal history present elsewhere as so many tiny fragments. John has drawn into a coherent design the stories of postal patronage, the decisions about postal privacy, the incidents along post roads used by others as illustrative anecdotes. John's work has inspired in him a deep appreciation for the accomplishments of the post.
John's book explains how the letters and newspapers sent through the post were really the glue that held the early 13 states together and that embraced additional states as the nation expanded westward...It is a splendid attempt to show the importance of mail service in the years before the telegraph or the telephone made at least brief news transmission possible. The postal system of the 19th century really was a factor, perhaps the major factor, in making the United States one nation.
This book traces the central role of the postal system in [its] communications revolution and its contribution to American public life. The author shows how the postal system influenced the establishment of a national society out of a loose union of confederated states. Richard John throws light onto a chapter in American history that is often neglected but sets up the origins of some of the most distinctive features of American life today...The book is a comprehensive study on an important American institution during a critical epoch in its history.
John has produced an original, well-documented, and thoughtful study that offers alternative and enticing interpretations of Jacksonian policies and public institutions.
- 384 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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