Vail Daily column: Post Office made U.S. economic engine purr

Jack Van Ens
My View
Jack Van Ens

What key dynamic created a robust U.S. economy in the early 19th century? Many believe self-made Americans were the pistons that fired up an emerging mercantile economy in the 1820s. Small-town shopkeepers worked long hours. New England millworkers produced items purchased in the U.S. and traded overseas. Farmers’ milk production rose like a rocket. Their crops brought bumper harvests. Each of these constituencies rolled up their sleeves as the U.S.’s industrial might boomed.

U.S. folklore conditions us to believe early 19th century shopkeepers, mill workers and farmers flexed economic muscle based on the credo: “If it’s (economic advance) meant to be, it’s up to me!” Above all else, hard work produced a strong economy.

What’s seldom noted and often forgotten is the major role the Post Office played in making America’s economic engine hum.

With Protestantism dominating religious life in the early 19th century, worshippers heard sermons that mixed what God wrought in life with their hard work. Divine grace and human gumption blended to inspire church-goers. Preachers delivered sermons on texts such as “Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart” (Galatians 6:9). Old-fashioned gumption counted to God.

Historian Michael Kazin dubs faith in God and in the benefits of hard work the “Jesus and Jefferson” conviction. Worshippers combined “religious with secular values. The latter — the Jefferson part — esteemed frugality, rural origins, hard work, self-reliance, local control, tight community ties, a strong sense of honor, doing the right thing … ” (“A Godly Hero: the Life of William Jennings Bryan”).

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Thrift, pluck and God’s blessing made the nation’s economic engine purr.

What other popular belief served as a cog making the economic engine rev up? Prior to the Civil War, a majority of Protestants embraced a rosy view of the future, called post-millennialism. They expected Christ’s return on earth would be the culmination of a progressive age, the Millennium, meaning “a thousand years.” The Millennium functioned as a metaphor for an age in which business boomed, science furnished creature comforts and inventions made life easier. During the Millennium and before Christ’s return on earth, Americans would benefit from moral improvement, economic progress and a sizeable increase in personal and national fortune.

What “the self-made American brimming with a rosy economic future” myth misses is the vital dynamic that created wealth in the 1820s: The Post Office.

Mill workers felt isolated, locked in their morning-to-dusk work. Daily, farmers had to stay near the cow herds to milk them. Shopkeepers’ long hours didn’t allow them to fraternize with other business owners outside their locales. Each of these self-made American blocs suffered from a malady that slowed economic growth: Cultural isolation. In the 1820s, they enjoyed little mobility. Citizens stayed to themselves to get their work done. Communication moved only as fast as a galloping horse.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French visitor who analyzed American religious/economic trends, referred to the Post Office as “a great link between minds” that helped civilize “the heart of the wilderness.”

Pulitzer-winning historian Daniel Walker Howe tells why the Post Office, rather than self-made Americanism, was the vital cog in the roaring American economic engine. “The post office pushed for improvements in transportation facilities and patronized them financially when they came. The same stage coaches that carried passengers along the turnpikes also carried the mail, and the postmaster general constantly pressed the stages to improve their service … . Contracts for carrying mail helped finance the early steamboats as well as nurture the stagecoach industry” (“What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848”).

Mail stoked economic fires. The Post Office delivered letters and even more newspapers that forged kinships between merchants. Farmers learned how competitors prospered in neighboring towns and states after reading newspapers sent from these destinations. Factory laborers proudly believed their work impacted the national economy because newspapers headlined this news.

The Post Office built a national communication system. Transportation lowered traveling time. The Post Office’s efficiency increased to get the mail to its destinations. The office of postmaster general was the top job in the presidential Cabinet. It carried the most political clout among Cabinet heads.

In the 1820s, the Post Office had more employees than the combined peacetime armed forces and workers in the federal government bureaucracy. Historian Howe recounts, “Between 1815 and 1830, the number of post offices grew from 3,000 to 8,000, most of them located in tiny villages and managed by part-time postmasters.”

Today, even though citizens write fewer letters tucked in envelopes with postage stamps on them, a “vast majority” expect mail to be delivered to every address in the country, reports the United States Postal Service in a 2015 study.

People who stay in touch build public spirit. Public spirit thrives when citizens invest in a positive future. Confident self-made Americans work harder.

What has been a key ingredient in a robust economy? It’s in the mail.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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