Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/July 1881/Union of the Telegraph and Postal Service

The name of the author is wrongly printed, should be Alden B. Hurt (see "Notes" in Popular Science Monthly, 19 (September 1881)).



THE recent consolidation of competing lines of telegraph into one gigantic corporation, and the consequent agitation of the question of Government control by the public press, Boards of Trade, and in Congress, make an inquiry into the subject of postal telegraphs, at the present time, of unusual interest.

In determining the question as to whether the United States should constitute this means of communication a part of the general postal system, the first important consideration is, whether such action is authorized by the Constitution; secondly, whether such control has proved a success in the several countries where it is thus organized; and, finally, whether a beneficial result is likely to follow from similar action in this country.

As to the first proposition, there can be no doubt. That clause of the Constitution wherein this authority is granted is found in section 8 of Article I, in this language: "Congress shall have power ... to establish post-offices and post-roads." By this comprehensive and explicit declaration, the framers of the Constitution, without doubt, intended to lodge with the General Government the exclusive privilege of regulating and conducting the transmission of intelligence among its citizens—in other words, the intent was to give to the General Government the exclusive monopoly of the postal service, by which was meant the interchange of intelligence, not only by the methods then in use, but also by the use of improved methods thereafter devised and adopted. This opinion is sustained by the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of The Pensacola Telegraph Company vs. The Western Union Telegraph Company (6 Otto), in which the Court says: "Post-offices and post-roads are established to facilitate the transmission of intelligence. Both commerce and the postal service are placed within the power of Congress, because, being national in their operation, they should be under the protecting care of the national Government." That these views are sound is too plain to be doubted. Continuing, however, the Court touches upon the very point in question—the telegraph: "The powers thus granted are not confined to the instrumentalities of commerce, or of the postal service, known or in use when the Constitution was adopted; but they keep pace with the progress of the country, and adapt themselves to the new developments of time and circumstances. They extend from the horse with its rider to the stage-coach, from the sailing-vessel to the steamboat, from the coach and steamboat to the railroad, and from the railroad to the telegraph, as these new agencies are successively brought into use to meet the demands of increasing population and wealth. They were intended for the Government business to which they relate, at all times and under all circumstances." It was impossible for the men who framed the Constitution to foresee the wonderful improvements in the means of rapid intercommunication which have since taken place. At that time there were only a few post-roads in the United States, and over these the mails were conveyed on horseback or in the stagecoach, consuming a fortnight in the trip from Boston to Philadelphia, that is now made by the fast mail in a few hours. In the progress of events, the people demanded a quicker means of communication, and the Government did not hesitate to place the mails upon the railroads as fast as they were constructed. Now, in many instances, the railroads are too slow to meet the demands of business communication, and the telegraph is freely used in all important commercial transactions. The business-man who does not use the telegraph each day for information as to markets abroad, to make contracts with distant customers, to transmit money, and in various other ways, is counted slow indeed in this age of progress. From these facts, is there not the more reason for making this wonderful and powerful agency subservient to the general postal system of this great and growing country than there was for providing for the carriage of the mails by steam?

Further, it is not only a constitutional privilege, but it is also a constitutional duty; and it is susceptible of the strongest proof that, in neglecting to make the telegraph a part of the postal system, the Government has failed of its constitutional duty toward its citizens. Such powers as are granted to the General Government are granted absolutely, and are lodged nowhere else. In the language of the tenth amendment, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." It may not be improper to observe here that only such powers were granted to the General Government as could not properly be exercised by the States. For instance, the right to declare war was granted to the General Government, and wisely, else New York might declare war against some foreign power, while the remaining States might be strongly in favor of peace. It is, therefore, fair to infer that such powers as were granted to the General Government were not "reserved to the States respectively, or to the people"; and in this class, as we have seen, is the power to regulate and control the transmission of intelligence. In the language of Mr. Justice Field, in ex parte Jackson (6 Otto), "The power possessed by Congress embraces the regulation of the entire postal system of the country." It extends to the telegraph as well as to the railroad, and the conveyance of letters and packets by regular trips over railroads by private parties is prohibited by law (Revised Statutes, sections 3,982, 3,983), yet we permit a private monopoly to convey our messages the quicker way by telegraph. The Government enforces a monopoly of the transmission of intelligence by the slower methods, but when the lightning is invoked that is left to the monopoly of a single private corporation, contrary to the true intent of the Constitution.

Let us now# see what success has attended the postal telegraphs of other countries, which have been quick to shed the blessings of an American invention upon their citizens, under the protection afforded by Government control. Among the first to adopt this system was the Government of Belgium, where, March 15, 1851, it was established with a tariff of two and one half francs for twenty words within a radius of seventy-five kilometres, or fifty cents for a distance of fortysix and one half miles, and five francs for a distance above seventyfive kilometres. The "registered system" was adopted here by which the sender, upon payment of a double fee, was provided with an exact copy of the message delivered to his correspondent, together with the exact time of the delivery. In 1878 the tariff had been reduced to a fraction over eight cents for each twenty words, and the receipts from this source amounted to $426,258.84. The next year, December 5, 1852, Switzerland adopted the system with the following tariff: for a message of twenty words, one franc; over twenty and under fifty, two francs; above fifty, three francs. In this country, almost from the very first, the receipts showed a large surplus over expenditures, and this was augmented in 1868, when the tariff was reduced to one half a franc for twenty words—a uniform rate. In 1879 the receipts amounted to $400,763.04; expenses, $314,893.39. About the same time the system was introduced in France, where it proved a complete success from the first. In 1877 the French tariff was a fraction over sixteen cents for twenty words, and the receipts from this source were $3,203,800. Then followed Russia, Germany, Sweden, Italy, New Zealand, and other countries, with the most gratifying results in each case. Great Britain, usually so quick to adopt reforms in the postal service, and to which Government we are indebted for various improvements in our service—the postage-stamp, money-order, postal-car, carrier-system, postal-card, etc.—was the last of the European countries to establish the system. Previous to its introduction there, the Chambers of Commerce memorialized Parliament in favor of the measure, alleging that they "had reason to complain not only of the high rates charged by existing companies for the transmission of messages, of frequent and vexatious delays in the delivery, and of the inaccurate rendering, but that many important towns, and even whole districts, are unsupplied with the means of telegraph communication." In moving leave to introduce the postal telegraph bill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said: "We were in the habit in this country of leaving to private enterprise the administration of internal affairs, the exception to the rule being that of postal communication. With the consent and approbation of the country, this was a monopoly in the hands of the Government; and he submitted that telegraphic communications and postal communication might be considered as coming within the same category, as both provided for correspondence between persons at a distance, and the only difference was the mode of communication. It would be admitted, as a general principle, that the monopoly which had succeeded so well in regard to the conveyance of letters might be expected to succeed equally as well in a more rapid method of communication. He was not aware of monopoly in the one case which would not hold good in the other." The reasoning of the distinguished Chancellor applies with greater force to this country, where the rates are higher than they were at this time in Great Britain, and where the entire telegraph system is in the hands of a single private corporation. The transfer of the telegraph business to the Government in Great Britain took place February 5, 1870, and in 1872 there was a net revenue from this source of £159,835, which increased in succeeding years. The following table exhibits the extent of telegraph business in the countries named:

COUNTRY. No. of telegraph-
Length of lines
Receipts. Year.
Great Britain 5,254 115,460 £1,346,892 1879
France 2,895 35,445 $3,203,800 00 1878
Russia 2,166 59,012 3,046,539 08 1874
Switzerland 1,150 . . . . . 400,763 00 1879
Belgium 586 3,234 426,258 84 1878
Italy 1,795 14,750 1,451,088 64 1875

The conclusions deduced from the foregoing facts, as applied to the question of adopting such a system in this country, are:

1. That the Government has the constitutional right to own and operate lines of telegraph, as a part of the general postal system, to the exclusion of all private competition; and, further, that such action is clearly a constitutional duty.

2. That in all the leading countries of the world the Government exercises this right, either in whole or in part, to the great benefit of the citizens of such countries, protecting them from the extortions of monopolies, and guaranteeing, for a small charge, to transmit and deliver their telegraphic correspondence with the privacy of sealed letters, with greater certainty and efficiency than can be assured by private corporations.

3. That there is no reason to doubt that the success which has attended the system in other countries would obtain here, especially when we consider the energy and enterprise of our countrymen, and the extent and resources of our great and rapidly developing country; and that with a uniform tariff, say of twenty cents for twenty words or less, it could be made in a few years to cover all expense, if not (which is probable) a source of revenue to the Government. That the near future will witness this realization is quite certain.