Long before FedEx or the United Parcel Service, there was another challenger to the United States Postal Service: the American Letter Mail Company.
The American Mail Company was founded in 1844 by Lysander Spooner. Even before his battle with USPS—which was then known as the U.S. Post Office—Spooner had quite the history as an activist. He was a self-educated lawyer, abolitionist, political philosopher, and supporter of the labor movement.
In 1844, when Spooner started his company, postal rates were rising–it cost as much 18 and ¾ cents (about $4.50 in 2018) to send a letter from Boston to New York and 25 cents ($6) to send a letter to Washington, D.C. Spooner believed he could deliver the mail at a lower cost.
After discovering there was no law stating that a private citizen could not compete against a federal service, Spooner decided to take action. An announcement of the mail company in the Daily Atlas of Boston on January 23, 1844 stated that “The persons engaged in the enterprize (sic) contend that the laws of Congress prohibiting private mails are unconstitutional, and they are anxious to have them tested on this point as speedily as possible. Lysander Spooner, of Worcester, Mass, is said to be the principal in this enterprise.”
The American Letter Mail Company had offices in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston and delivered letters daily between the cities, with delivery twice a day to New York and Philadelphia, all at the cost of 6 ¼ cents per each half ounce.
Those using the American Mail Company Service would purchase stamps and attach them to letters. From there, agents would travel by rail or steamboats carrying their letters in handbags. Once the agents arrived in serviced cities along the routes, the letters would be handed over to messengers who would then deliver the letters to their specific destinations.
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An editorial in the Boston Atlas on March 1, 1844 said, “The question of constitutionality in this case is interesting. It is certainly remarkable, and not without a favorable bearing to this company’s reasoning, that whilst in the old articles of confederation, it was declared that ‘Congress shall have the sole and exclusive right and power of establishing and regulating post offices,’ when the constitution came to be adopted, this phraseology was altered, and the words “sole” and “exclusive” omitted. Amongst the various prohibitions upon the State government, it is also worthy of notice, there is no one against the establishment of post roads and post offices. We shall certainly watch the progress of this company with interest. They have presented the matter of post office reform in a new and original aspect.”
Although the citizens were supportive of this new cheaper rate service, Congress was not. Soon, railroads were warned that if they wanted to continue carrying U.S. Postal Service mail, they could not also transport mail from the American Mail Company. This soon put a dent in Spooner’s business.
Again, in the Atlas on March 01, 1844, a Baltimore Sun article was reprinted telling of the fate of Spooner’s agents if they were caught with mail on trains. “On Saturday evening last, at about seven o’clock, when the cars were about to start for Philadelphia from the Pratt street depot, Mr. Fisher, an agent of the American Mail Company, appeared as a passenger and being suspected by the railroad agent of being a private mail carrier, he was informed of the difficulty that lay in the way of his going on as such. He gave up the key to his trunk that it might be ascertained whether or not it contained ‘mailable matter,’ and took his seat in one of the cars, in which he was accosted by Hugo McElderry, Esq., one of the directors of the Railroad Company, to whom he made the admission that he was an agent of the American Mail Company. Mr. McElderry therefore informed him that he could not go on, and as he manifested an unwillingness to leave the cars, Mr. McElderry took hold of him and ejected him from the car. The train then proceeded on its way to Philadelphia-Baltimore Sun.”
Another agent of Spooner’s company found himself arrested and fined for transporting letters via a railroad car over the U.S. Post Road.
Eventually, a U.S. judge sided with Spooner’s company. He ruled that railroads were not to be held responsible if their passengers, unbeknownst to them, were letter carriers who brought mail aboard a steamboat or train. The not guilty vote was also upheld by the U.S. Circuit Court.
After several more court battles, the government decided there was only one option left. The Postmaster General came before Congress and asked for permission to lower rates. In March of 1845, a new lower rate was set with letters of less than a half an ounce being allowed to be sent up to 300 miles for five cents. Newspapers too could be delivered at no charge within a 30-mile radius.
Yet Lysander Spooner was not done with his challenge to the U.S. Post Office. In response to the new lower rates, he too lowered his rates. In 1851, Congress once again lowered postal rates to three cents for delivery anywhere in the country. Spooner was finally satisfied. He became known as the father of the three-cent stamp, and his company was disbanded. Spooner himself died in 1887, after a long career of rabble-rousing and activism.
A special thanks to the Boston Public Library and their on-line newspaper archives.