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John Bull, Uncle Sam, Transatlantic Steamships, and the Mail

John, Richard R.

Historical writing on North Atlantic postal communications in the mid-nineteenth century has mostly focused on the gradual ascendancy of the Halifax-based Cunard Steamship Company, which completed its first transatlantic postal voyage in 1840. Largely overlooked in this literature is the long and often ideologically charged debate in the United States over the propriety of subsidizing postal transportation outside of the country’s territorial boundaries.

A pivotal event in this debate was the 1849 confrontation in the U.S. Senate between Ohio Democrat William Allen and Connecticut Democrat John Niles. Allen opposed postal subsidies: in his view, the U.S. government should subsidize the circulation of information on public affairs, but not commercial correspondence. Niles, a former postmaster general, supported subsidies as a necessary adjunct to trade. To buttress his point, Allen ventured a remarkably expansive historical comparison between ancient Greece, where the absence of a postal system made representative government impossible, and the modern United States, where the postal system undergirded democratic politics. This debate effectively ended in 1851, when the U.S. Congress rejected its longstanding commitment to balancing postal revenue and postal expenditures, a victory for Niles.

While forgotten today, this debate – and the comparable debate in the British Parliament over mail subsidies – is significant for at least two reasons. First, it marked an early chapter in the still-evolving debate over the role of national governments in what we would today call global information policy; and, second, it spawned a remarkably enduring visual iconography that popularized the figures of John Bull and Uncle Sam.


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Postal History: Multidisciplinary and Diachronic Perspectives
Istituto di Studi Storici Postali

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November 30, 2020