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Projecting Power Overseas: U.S. Postal Policy and International Standard-Setting at the 1863 Paris Postal Conference

  • Richard R. John (a1)

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For critical readings of this essay, I am grateful to Nancy R. John, Léonard Laborie, Simone Müller, and Heidi Tworek. Special thanks to Joshua Duden, Amelia Follett, Martin Klöckner, Katryn Montalbano, and Jeffrey Nichols for research assistance, and to Jennifer M. Lynch at the U.S. Postal Service Library for making available to me a copy of John A. Kasson’s “Journal.”

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NOTES

1. “International Postal Conference,” in Twenty-Eighth Annual Report of the Post Office Department of the United States . . . 1863 (Washington, D.C., 1864), 164.

2. Confusion persists even with respect to nomenclature. The U.S. delegate, John A. Kasson, consistently termed the meeting a “conference,” a practice followed here. In the U.S. press, however, the meeting was often termed a “convention”; in France and England, in contrast, it was sometimes termed a “commission” or a “congress.” The term “convention” linked the meeting with social reform; “commission” and “congress” with diplomacy. For “Postal Convention,” see “The Postal Puzzle,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 December 1862; “Postal Convention,” Baltimore Sun, 10 July 1863; “The International Postal Convention,” Springfield Republican, 29 August 1863. For “commission,” see Commission Internationale des Postes (Paris: Impériale, 1863); “Letter from Paris,” 23 June 1863, in Milwaukee Sentinel, 11 July 1863; “The International Postal Congress,” Manchester Guardian, 6 June 1863.

3. Compte rendu des travaux du Congrès général de statistique: réuni à Bruxelles les 19, 20, 21, et 22 Septembre 1853 (Brussels, 1853), 94, 236–37.

4. Kasson, John A. to William Seward, 31 December 1862, United States Postal Service Library, Washington, D.C. (hereafter USPSL-DC).

5. Kasson, John, “An Autobiography,” Annals of Iowa 12 (July 1920): 349; Younger, Edward A., John A. Kasson: Politics and Diplomacy from Lincoln to McKinley (Iowa City, 1955), 104.

6. See, for example, Lyall, Francis, International Telecommunications: The International Telecommunications Union and the Universal Postal Union (Farnham, UK, 2011), 229–31, and Lyons, F. S. L., Internationalism in Europe, 1815–1914 (Leyden, 1963), 4445.

7. The most authoritative English-language account of the conference remains Codding, George A. Jr., The International Postal Union: Coordinator of International Mails (New York, 1964), 2024, which can be supplemented by Léonard Laborie, L’Europe mise en réseaux: La France et la coopération internationale dans les postes et les télécommunications (Brussels, 2010), chap. 2. Other accounts include Marc Moser, 100 Jahre Weltpostverein (Frankfurt am Main, 1974–75); Younger, John A. Kasson, chap. 9; Sly, John F., “The Genesis of the Universal Postal Union: A Study of the Beginnings of International Organization,” International Conciliation 233 (October 1927): 395436; and Beelenkamp, C. J., Les lois postales universelles (Havre, 1910), 531–50. Moser, Younger, and Beelenkamp had access to a copy of the official proceedings of the conference; Sly did not (Sly, “Genesis,” 424 fn 20). No previous scholar has had access to Kasson’s personal journal, which has long been retained among the miscellaneous records of the U.S. Postal Service Library in Washington, D.C. The librarian of the U.S. Post Office Department briefly contemplated publishing Kasson’s journal in conjunction with the centennial of the Paris Postal Conference in 1963. The librarian demurred, however, after he read through the document, fearful that, though a century had passed, Kasson’s “pithy and sagacious comments” about the other delegates—Kasson had much, in particular, to say about the French and the British—might “possibly strain international relations.” Xenophon P. Smith, memorandum, 24 August 1962, USPSL-DC.

8. The conference goes unmentioned, for example, in Herring’s, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (New York, 2008).

9. Exceptions include Hart, Justin, Empire of Ideas: The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of U.S. Foreign Policy (New York, 2013); Tyrrell, Ian, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (Princeton, 2010); and Ninkovich, Frank, Global Dawn: The Cultural Foundation of American Internationalism, 1865–1890 (Cambridge, Mass., 2009).

10. Maier, Charles S., Leviathan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood (Cambridge, Mass., 2012), chap. 2.

11. “International Postal Conference,” in Twenty-Eighth Annual Report of the Post Office Department, 118–20.

12. Nickles, David Paull, Under the Wire: How the Telegraph Changed Diplomacy (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), chap. 3.

13. John, Richard R., “The Political Economy of Postal Reform in the Victorian Age,” Smithsonian Contributions to History and Technology 55 (2010): 312.

14. Hill, Frederic, Postal Conference, May 1863, in Kasson, “Journal,” USPSL-DC.

15. John, Richard R., “Expanding the Realm of Communications,” in An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation: vol. 2 of A History of the Book in America, ed. Gross, Robert A. and Kelley, Mary (Cambridge, 2010), 211–20; John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), chap. 2. The extension of the civic rationale for postal policy to embrace the circulation of parcels was highly controversial and, when this issue first found its way onto the public agenda in the 1870s, met with vigorous opposition. “If Congress proposes to go into the business of transporting dry goods, groceries, and harnesses in four-pound packages,” declared an editorialist in 1876 who was otherwise sympathetic to low-cost mail delivery, “it should, at the very least, charge enough to pay the expenses. We doubt the expediency of going into the [parcel delivery] business at all. . . . The cheapest rate of postage can be attained best by confining the mail to its proper business.” “The Postal Question,” Independent, 20 April 1876.

16. Maischak, Lars, German Merchants in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic (Cambridge, 2013), chap. 5.

17. Hargest, George E., History of Letter Post Communication Between the United States and Europe, 1845–1875, 2nd ed. (Lawrence, Mass., 1971), chap. 1.

18. Maischak, German Merchants in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic, 142.

19. I owe this insight to Peter A. Shulman.

20. Handlin, Lilian, George Bancroft: The Intellectual as Democrat (New York, 1984), 232.

21. George Bancroft to Lord Clanicarde, 11 February 1848, in Polk, James K., “Message from the President, Communicating the Correspondence between the United States Minister at London and Authorities of the British Government, In Relation to a Postal Arrangement between the Two Countries,” Sen. Ex. Doc. 30, 30th Cong., 1st sess., 1848 (serial 506), 35.

22. Living Age, 13 September 1851; Laborie, L’Europe mise en réseaux, 89.

23. Derecourt, Henry, Colonial and International Postage: A Collection of Extracts, Ideas, and Information on Postal Affairs, and Post Office Anomalies (London, 1854), 8.

24. Abbott Lawrence to Daniel Webster, 7 May 1852, in Hamilton Andrews Hill, Memoir of Abbott Lawrence, 2nd ed. (Boston, 1884), 233.

25. Lawrence to Webster, in Hill, Memoir, 232.

26. Herring, From Colony to Superpower, chap. 6; Warren F. Spencer, The Confederate Navy in Europe (University, Ala., 1983), esp. 89–90.

27. London Morning Chronicle, 28 September 1861, 5; “The Southern Confederacy,” London Times, 27 December 1862, 7; “The Civil War in America,” London Times, 30 May 1862, 9; Hudson, E. M., The Second War of Independence in America (London, 1863), vi.

28. Henri Mercier to William Henry Seward, January 1862, in Lincoln, Abraham, “Annual Message of the President,” H. Ex. Doc. 1, 37th Cong., 3rd sess., 1862 (serial 1156), 408.

29. Younger, John A. Kasson, 142.

30. “International Postage,” Spectator, 14 August 1852, 780.

31. “Address,” Journal of the Society of the Arts and of the Institutions in Union 3 (17 February 1854): 7.

32. Younger, John A. Kasson, chap. 9.

33. On Burritt, see Peter Tolis, Elihu Burritt: Crusader for Brotherhood (Hamden, Conn., 1968).

34. Kasson, “Journal,” 25 May 1863, USPSL-DC.

35. Kasson, “Journal,” 26 May 1863, USPSL-DC. The “gates” of Europe, in Kasson’s view, did not include Spain and Portugal, presumably because they had few steamship connections, and thus in comparison with their neighbors, were of the “least postal importance.” Kasson, “Journal,” 2 June 1863, USPSL-DC.

36. Kasson, “Journal,” 21 May 1863, tipped-in letter, USPSL-DC.

37. Kasson, “Journal,” 19 May 1863, USPSL-DC.

38. Kasson, “Journal,” 30 May 1863, USPSL-DC.

39. Kasson, “Journal,” 10 May 1863, USPSL-DC.

40. Kasson, “Journal,” 19 May 1863, USPSL-DC.

41. Among the American merchants active in overseas trade with whom Kasson met with in London and Paris in the days immediately preceding the 1863 conference were John Murray Forbes and William H. Aspinwall. Kasson, “Journal,” 9, 12 May 1863, USPSL-DC; Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., A Cycle of Adams Letters, 1861–1865 (Boston, 1920), 400.

42. “International Postal Regulations,” Philadelphia North American, 6 June 1863.

43. Kasson, “Journal,” 27 May 1863, USPSL-DC.

44. Kasson, “Journal,” 19, 22 May 1863, 2, 4 June 1863, USPSL-DC. The members of this subcommittee consisted of the delegates from five countries: Great Britain, France, the United States, Prussia, and Switzerland.

45. Kasson, “Journal,” 3 June 1863, USPSL-DC.

46. Kasson, “Journal,” 30 May 1863, USPSL-DC.

47. Kasson, “Journal,” 26 May 1863, USPSL-DC. Kasson was by no means alone in prioritizing low cost over high speed. “Cheap postage is a blessing more especially to the poor and the emigrant,” editorialized the New-York Tribune in discussing a postal treaty with Great Britain: “To them a difference of forty-eight hours in time is nothing, but a difference of nine cents in money is a great deal. The proportion of business letters which require speed in transmission, we are credibly informed, is to other letters not more than as one to nine.” “The British Postal Treaty,” New-York Tribune, 20 February 1868.

48. “International Postal Conference,” in Twenty-Eighth Annual Report of the Post Office Department, 144–45.

49. Blair, Montgomery, “Annual Report of the Postmaster General,” H. Ex. Doc. 1, 38th Cong., 1st sess., 1863 (serial 1184), 9.

50. “International Postal Conference,” in Twenty-Eighth Annual Report of the Post Office Department, 164.

51. Kasson, “Journal,” 30 May 1863, USPSL-DC.

52. Lewins, William, Her Majesty’s Mails: An Historical and Descriptive Account of the British Post-Office (London, 1863), 183.

53. “International Postal Regulations,” Philadelphia North American, 6 June 1863; “The International Postal Convention,” Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 21 August 1863; “The International Postal Convention,” Boston Daily Advertiser, 24 August 1863.

54. “The International Postal Convention,” Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 21 August 1863.

55. “Thorough Postal Reform,” Independent, 13 February 1862. Most Independent editorials, like this one, were unsigned. Leavitt’s authorship can be inferred from its vigorous style, the self-assurance with which it tackled arcane postal topics, and its allusion to the newly appointed Boston postmaster, John Gorham Palfrey, a longtime acquaintance. Leavitt served as managing editor of the Independent from its founding in 1848 until his death in 1873; during this period he wrote many editorials on postal topics.

56. “New Postal Project,” Independent, 10 July 1862.

57. Leavitt, Joshua, An Essay on the Best Way of Developing Improved Political and Commercial Relations between Great Britain and the United States of America (London, 1869), 20, 23.

58. “International Postal Conference,” in Twenty-Eighth Annual Report of the Post Office Department, 111.

59. Codding, Universal Postal Union, chap. 2

60. “International Postal Conference,” in Twenty-Eighth Annual Report of the Post Office Department, 164.

61. Judah Benjamin to Mason, James M., 15 January 1863, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, ser. 2 (Washington, D.C., 1922), vol. 3, 650.

62. Mazower, Mark, Governing the World: The Rise and Fall of an Idea, 1815 to the Present (New York, 2012).

63. The originator of the facile, question-begging, and maddeningly anachronistic characterization of the nineteenth-century electric telegraph network as the “Victorian internet” is Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth-Century’s On-line Pioneers (New York, 1998).

64. Müller-Pohl, Simone and Hampf, Michaela, Global Communication Electric: Business, News, and Politics in the World of Telegraphy (Frankfurt am Main, 2013); John, Richard R., Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications (Cambridge, Mass., 2010), chaps. 45.

65. For a related, though distinct, formulation of the relationship between politics and artifacts, which posits a causal relationship not from politics to artifacts, but the other way around, see Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus 109 (Winter 1980): 121–36.

For critical readings of this essay, I am grateful to Nancy R. John, Léonard Laborie, Simone Müller, and Heidi Tworek. Special thanks to Joshua Duden, Amelia Follett, Martin Klöckner, Katryn Montalbano, and Jeffrey Nichols for research assistance, and to Jennifer M. Lynch at the U.S. Postal Service Library for making available to me a copy of John A. Kasson’s “Journal.”

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Projecting Power Overseas: U.S. Postal Policy and International Standard-Setting at the 1863 Paris Postal Conference

  • Richard R. John (a1)

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