I do have plenty of good excuses for the delay, up to and including a torn MCL from which I’m still recovering, but we won’t dwell on all of that. Instead, we will talk about something far more interesting…
The Post Office
In this chapter I mention the postmasters. I thought I would share the rather interesting fact that from 1691-1823, there were actually two Postmasters General in Great Britain: one Tory, and one Whig. This was done to prevent either political party from having too much control over the central means of communication. It strikes me as a terribly enlightened idea – recognizing that some structures are too vital to be politicized.
We tend to take the post office for granted these days, but if you stop and think about it for even a minute you realize that a national post office is basically a miracle. At the very least it’s a marvel. I can’t really think of any other agency of my government that functions as reliably on that kind of scale, can you? Every single home and business. Every single post box. Every single day. (Or close enough.)
In many countries, these institutions have been in full-scale operation for more than 200 years, and amazingly there isn’t much of a time differential between now and then for deliveries. Before video chats, texts, cellphones, the Internet, televisions, telephones, carrier pigeons, radios, telegraphs, semaphore lines… the only way of communicating complex information over large distances was via human messenger. Postmen and Post Offices formed the first wide-spread, wide-scale structures for disseminating information (such as news) to and between the general public. They were the first communications networks.
There’s a wonderful article here written by Susanna Ives, that does a fabulous job explaining how the early modern post office worked, and so I won’t repeat what she’s already covered so well. It’s worth a read.
The other reason I raise the subject of the post is to give some context on the idea of stamp taxes. When the price of stamps rises every few years, perhaps it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. I certainly never fully grasped the revolutionary fervor surrounding the Stamp Act of 1765 when I was in grade school, nor why the Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act was ‘lumped in’ with the other infamous Six Acts of 1819, which pertain mostly to preventing people from meeting to discuss, plan, and train for violent rebellion. (Incidentally, that’s the legislation our dear Lord Masen is currently drafting in the story.)
The idea of paying to communicate is almost a foreign concept to modern citizens. We may pay for communications services, but not for the privilege of speaking in and of itself. Imagine if the government forced you to pay a dollar every time you sent an email, or forwarded the link to a news story, or retweeted a politician’s opinion. That’s what stamp duties amounted to, and whether by design or as a byproduct, they had a serious impact on freedom of speech. It wasn’t just about the government taking money from people, but from where the government was taking that money, that made it so oppressive.
Once again, here’s Chapter 5.