Historical Policy Bias Favoring Newspaper over Personal Letters

face of a prisoner

Early U.S. communications policy heavily subsidized newspapers relative to personal letters. From 1792 to 1845, a four-sheet newspaper letter sent thirty miles cost only about 4% as much in postage as a four-sheet personal letter sent that distance. For distances over 500 miles, a personal letter cost sixty-seven times as much in postage as a newspaper did. Early nineteenth-century U.S. postal rates made the cost of sending a personal letter about equal to one day’s wage for a male laborer.^ The high cost of postage for letters biased letter-writing toward wealthy persons and business purposes.

The relatively low cost of newspaper postage allowed big-city newspapers to be distributed to far-away rural readers. In 1832, at least 750,000 newspaper copies published in Boston were mailed more than 100 miles away. In 1838, five major cities were the source of about half the newspapers posted. Small-town newspapers bitterly complained about the influx of big-city newspapers. Small-town newspapers fought for higher news postal rates that would improve the position of local newspapers.^

Public figures forcefully expressed the importance of newspapers to the public. Samuel Adams helped to organize the Boston Tea Party, helped to draft the Massachusetts Constitution, and participated in the writing of the Articles of Confederation. Writing to him in 1776, a leading New York newspaper publisher declared:

As a mere Conveniency, the Carriage of News papers is of Importance to more than twenty Times as Many persons as the Carriage of Letters is, and there are very few persons but who are much more solicitous to receive their News papers, than Letters, by the Post. But the great Use of News papers is that they form the best opportunities of Intelligence, that could be devised, of every publick Matter that concerns us, besides communicating many Useful Discoveries in Arts and Manufactories & many moral & religious Truths &c. It was by the means of News papers, that we receiv’d & spread the Notice of the tyrannical Designs formed against America, and Kindled a Sprit that has been sufficient to repel them. But I need not to enumerate the advantages & Importance of a general Circulation of Newspapers, which I think are greater than all of the Letters carried by the Post.^

Benjamin Rush, another leading public figure in the founding of the U.S., proclaimed in an “Address to the People of the United States”:

To conform the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens to our republican forms of government, it is absolutely necessary that knowledge of every kind, should be disseminated through every part of the united states. … For the purpose of diffusing knowledge, as well as extending the living principle of government to every part of the United States – every state – city – county – village – and township in the union, should be tied together by means of the post-office. This is the true non-electric wire of government. It is the only means of conveying heat and light to every individual in the federal commonwealth. … It should be a constant injunction to the postmasters, to convey newspapers free of all charge for postage.^

A bias in favor of public works relative to personal communication is deeply embedded in the historical development of U.S. democracy.

The bias in favor of public works is strongest with respect to prisoners. Benjamin Rush, the U.S. founding father who advocated conveying newspapers “free of all charge for postage,” also advocated constructing penitentiaries. His idea was to replace public punishments, particularly public executions and public penal labor, with private punishments directed toward moral reformation. Solitude and silence Rush described as conducive to moral reformation. With novelistic imagination, Rush wrote:

Methinks I already hear the inhabitants of our villages and townships counting the years that shall complete the reformation of one of their citizens. I behold them running to meet him on the day of his deliverance. His friends and family bathe his cheeks with tears of joy; and the universal shout of the neighbourhood is, “this our brother was lost, and is found – was dead and is alive.” ^ ^

A scholar described Rush’s proposal thus:

Rush proposed placing narrative over sight as the source of penal terror. Separating the public from punishment done in its name, Rush opened up the space for new forms of imaginary identifications. Despite his distrust of novel reading, Rush presumed the very structures of imaginary communion that novelists from Samuel Richardson onward had sought to cultivate. Like eighteenth-century authors who hoped to create a new public through reading and discussion of novels, a public joined together through acts of imagination, Rush suggested that stories and imagined suffering would seal together the community.^ ^

Benjamin Rush was a leading citizen in the leading revolutionary-era city of Philadelphia. In 1790, a “penitentiary house” with sixteen cells designed for solitary confinement was built within the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia. In 1821, the Pennsylvania legislature approved funding to build a much larger penitentiary in Philadelphia. This penitentiary, known as the Eastern State Penitentiary, became a world famous model for prison reform. The Eastern State Penitentiary was designed and operated to suppress communication, as completely as possible, for years, for hundreds of prisoners. Suppressing prisoners’ communication subsequently dissipated as a practice and as an ideal. But Rush’s prioritization of public works over personal communication has endured in the balance of prisoners’ access to books, music, radio, and television relative to personal communication with their families and friends.

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