It’s strange to think of it now, but the Post Office Department was a major federal law enforcement agency. On the eve of World War I, the FBI (then called the Bureau of Investigation) was a fledgling subsidiary of the Justice Department. When the Espionage Act was signed in 1917, there were only three hundred Bureau of Investigation agents, and the Secret Service had only eleven counterespionage agents in New York. But the Post Office (an executive branch department in those days) was well established. It had 300,000 employees, including 422 inspectors and 56,000 postmasters overseeing the circulation of fourteen billion pieces of mail every year. The Post Office reached the far corners of the country, and it had been that way for decades. Long before there were highways and telephones there were postal roads and mail couriers. Small towns had post offices before they had cemeteries.
So when the United States entered World War I and the government wanted to censor dangerous words with a nationwide mechanism that had a long history of constitutional authority, it turned to the Post Office. The government gained the power to censor words by mastering the ability to circulate them, and warfare—the other foundation of big government— justified more censorship. This was how the government found James Joyce. The censorship of Ulysses began not because vigilantes were searching for pornography but because censors in the Post Office were searching for foreign spies, radicals and anarchists, and it made no difference if they were political or philosophical or if they considered themselves artists.
The growth of the federal government is largely the story of the growth of the Post Office, and a powerful Post Office was the cornerstone of the U.S. censorship regime. Since its establishment in 1782, the Post Office had a legal monopoly over mail circulation, but the government didn’t exercise that power until 1844, when Congress declared that the system’s purpose was “elevating our people in the scale of civilization and bringing them together in patriotic affection.”Out of a diverse population sprawling across the continent, the mail would make Americans. The policy began a half-century expansion during which the Post Office build roads, slashed postage rates and stiffened penalties for private carriers violating the government’s monopoly. From 1845 to 1890, mail volume increased one hundred times over.
The Post Office garnered most of its strength by slashing postal rates. In 1844, it charged twenty-five cents to carry a letter four hundred miles, and if the letter had two sheets, the postage doubled (envelopes counted as another sheet). Seven years later, that same letter could be delivered nearly across the continent for only three cents. Newspapers and magazines enjoyed reduced rates since before the days of Ben Franklin, and yet periodical postage also plummeted. By 1879, newspapers and magazines were grouped as “second-class mail” and delivered anywhere for two cents per pound. If the recipient lived in the same county as the sender, delivery was free. Rates didn’t hit rock bottom until 1885, when periodicals were delivered anywhere in the country for one cent per pound, and it remained that way until 1918.
World War I dramatically expanded postage censorship. Postmaster General Albert Burleson claimed the Espionage Act gave him the authority to judge mailed material without court approval or congressional oversight. When Congress asked Burleson to disclose his surveillance instructions to the nation’s postmasters, he simply refused. The Post Office decided who broke the law, who deserved the rate increases or outright bans and deserved criminal prosecution. Burleson was a man to be reckoned with. He wore a black coat to match the black umbrella he carried at all times, and one of the president’s advisers called him “the most belligerent member of the cabinet,” which was saying a lot in 1918. He once complained about a socialist newspaper’s “insidious attempt to keep within the letter of the law.”
—The most dangerous book: the battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham (pp 109-110) (The Penguin Press, 2014).