The U.S. Postal Service continues its financial free fall, posting a record $15.9 billion deficit in its fiscal year. If approved by Congress, budget cuts would end Saturday mail deliveries, saving the Postal Service $8 billion annually.
Postal delivery has been trimmed or expanded in U.S. history, depending on economic trends and religious convictions. Thomas Jefferson proposed expanding colonial postal delivery when few passable east-west trails existed. Lack of roads prohibited letters from reaching pioneers out in the sticks.
Jefferson wanted mail delivery to run as smoothly as he wrote. He labored over drafts to perfect a graceful, spare and lucid style. With more postal roads, Jefferson believed, citizens remote from each other would become knit. Visiting a post office to collect mail, a pioneer reading letters began to feel as if the sender had reached out and greeted him. This personal effect of getting a letter made an impression the way today's slapdash email or text doesn't. Exchanged letters deepened citizens' camaraderie.
Jefferson remembered the copious correspondence he and John Adams exchanged in retirement. Early on friends, then political enemies, it was the quill on parchment that brought them together. Wouldn't similar exchanges of letters bind the nation's wounds and lift her spirits?
At a hurried appointment with President Washington on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 1792, in New York, Jefferson aimed to expand postal service by "doubling the velocity of post-riders" from 50 to 100 miles a day.
Moreover, he rejected consolidating political power at the top, which Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton vigorously endorsed. The Treasury Department was in charge of the postal system. Secretary of State Jefferson proposed the Post Office Department be transferred under him because "the Treasury possessed already such an influence as to swallow up the whole Executive powers."
Strong religious protests rocked this build-out of postal service. Furiously divisive debate spanned 1810-40. This era churned with charges and counter charges about how mail delivery would harm Sabbath observance. Presbyterians led the protest against postal employees working on Sundays. Why desecrate the Sabbath by laboring on the Lord's Day?
Presbyterians didn't get exercised over mail services on Saturday. That was the Jewish Sabbath, which ran from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. Christians, to mark Christ's resurrection on the first day of the week, observed their Sabbath on Sunday. Presbyterian professors at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) and at the theological seminary denounced the postal system for breaking the Fourth Commandment: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8).
"Holy" in the early 19th century didn't incur current negative connotations. Today, a holy person is perceived as insufferable - an uppity moral prig who chastises others for their faults. "Holy" in 1810 meant to keep Sunday distinctive by passing blue laws prohibiting work.
Many Christians petitioned against the assault on the Sabbath's dignity when Congress promoted open post offices. In 1810, legislators passed a law requiring postmasters to open their offices any days when mail was delivered. No house delivery of mail occurred in this era. Correspondence and parcels were placed in post office slots where citizens picked them up.
In 1812, the Presbyterian General Assembly - which functions like the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House rolled into one body - called for a repeal of the law opening post offices on Sunday. The General Assembly also pressed for the government to stop transporting Sunday mail.
Presbyterians started a mail campaign against Sunday post office openings. Congress wouldn't budge. In 1815, legislators were swamped with hundreds of petitions against Sunday mail service. Christians detested Jefferson for his alleged whittled-down heretical faith, as evidenced by his advocacy of Sunday mail delivery.
In 1827, Princeton University and Seminary passed edicts that left the hamlet isolated from the world on Sundays. They pushed through a petition calling for a community "ordinance prohibiting stages, wagons etc., from passing through the town on the Sabbath." Princetonians walked to church without street dust churned up by mail delivery wagons soiling Sunday-best clothes.
As an avid stamp collector, I'm not in favor of diminished mail service. Fewer sent letters adds up to less stamps canceled for me to collect. If letter writing continues its demise, citizens will become more mentally remote and isolated.
President Barack Obama appreciates a strong writing habit, whether used in a diary or by letter. "Writing has been an important exercise to clarify what I believe," he says. "What I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are, ... the process of converting a jumble of thoughts into coherent sentences makes you ask tougher questions." Without citizens posing such queries by letter, our republic languishes.
Today, cutting postal services on Saturdays stirs passions, reminiscent of how it perforated communities stamped with controversy during the Jeffersonian era.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.