In contrast, the Post Office Act of 1792, with a broad civic mandate, vastly expanded the postal network while admitting newspapers into the mail at an extremely low rate. No less impressively, it guaranteed the sanctity of personal correspondence by protecting letters from the prying eyes of government. In a stroke, the founders provided the entire population with low-cost access to information on public affairs, while establishing a right to personal privacy.

The results were astounding. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the skill with which postal administrators circulated hefty bundles of newspapers from New York and Philadelphia to the wilds of Detroit, then a thinly populated outpost on the western frontier. To his eyes, the post office was the only entity with the organizational capability to circulate the information of public significance that was essential to sustain America’s bold experiment with democracy. The German-born philosopher Francis Lieber called it an “element of civilization” — worthy of comparison with the printing press and the mariner’s compass…

Relatively few city dwellers go to the post office to pick up their mail, but in countless hamlets and small towns, the local post office remains a vital community center. For millions of workers, including veterans and African-Americans, a job at the post office has been a ticket to the middle class and has provided a pension and medical care to retirees. The Postal Service is the country’s second largest civilian employer, after Walmart.