January 26: The Talented — and Quite Regrettable — Postmaster General


Today in 1802, Gideon Granger of Suffield took office as the nation’s fourth postmaster general, ushering in a new era for the U.S. postal service — for better and for worse. A Yale graduate, Granger practiced law in his hometown of Suffield and served in the Connecticut General Assembly beginning in 1792. Following an unsuccessful 1798 bid for Congress, Granger caught the attention of President Thomas Jefferson through essays he wrote supporting the President’s Democratic-Republican political policies. Jefferson appointed Granger Postmaster General, a position he assumed on January 26, 1802 and held until 1814, making him the longest-serving Postmaster General in U.S. history.

After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase nearly doubled the size of the country at a pen-stroke, Granger placed a high priority on establishing postal service — no matter how rudimentary — to America’s new Western settlements. Many of his ideas, including establishing cheaper postal rates for newspaper delivery and sub-contracting out rural postal routes to private couriers, helped strengthen the early federal Post Office Department and earned Granger much contemporary acclaim. Today, however, Granger is best remembered for his most ignominious idea: his advocacy for a national ban that prohibited African-Americans from carrying the mail.

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Sculpture of Gideon Granger by Gleb W. Derujinsky at the Ariel Rios Federal Building in Washington, D.C. (Carol Highsmith collection, Library of Congress)

When Granger took office in 1802, what is now known as the Haitian Revolution was still going strong in the Caribbean, and like many of his fellow Democratic-Republicans, Granger deeply feared the possibility of a bloody slave uprising occurring in the United States. Although African Americans (mostly slaves) had been known to carry local mail since colonial times, Granger considered the practice far too dangerous and lobbied Congress to ban it. In a letter to a southern Senator, he detailed his concerns: Since only “the most active and intelligent” slaves were sent on mail-carrying errands, the odds that they could secretly orchestrate an uprising and communicate it to their fellow enslaved brethren were too great to risk. “One able man among them,” Granger wrote, “…might lay a plan which would be communicated by your post riders from town to town and produce a general and united operation against you.”

Granger’s words convinced a concerned Congress to pass an act in May 1802 that stated “No other than a free white person shall be employed in carrying the mail of the United States.” The ban remained in placed for nearly sixty years — by far the most infamous and far-reaching part of Gideon Granger’s legacy as the country’s longest-serving Postmaster General. A few steps forward for the U.S. Post Office at the expense of one giant leap backward for black Americans, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Deanna Boyd and Kendra Chen, “The History and Experience of African Americans in America’s Postal Service,” Smithsonian National Postal Museum

Gideon Granger, Jr.,” Kent Memorial Library [Suffield, CT]