This blog post was composed by graduate assistant Ricky Shull, a master’s student in the Journalism Department.
It is perhaps the most obvious responsibility of a legislator to vote on and write legislation that will have an impact on their constituents. Members of Congress do much more than write and vote on legislation, and their responsibilities extend beyond the House or Senate buildings. This post will look at items from the Constituent Correspondence series, a part of the W. R. Poage Congressional Papers, and explain Poage’s responsibility to his district by way of the Post Office.
The Post Office has seen significant changes over the years, but for a long time it was the responsibility of each district’s Representative to appoint postmasters and rural carriers and to petition the Post Office Department to act on issues that affected the mail service their constituents received. During Poage’s first term in Congress, the law was changed so that postmasters and rural carriers would serve permanently, until retirement or death. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Poage was tasked with many postmaster appointments as the terms of previous appointments expired. There were two ways in which a Representative could make an appointment: either re-appoint the incumbent postmaster for a permanent term, or hold an open competitive exam administered through the Civil Services Commission.
This appointment process could get highly political, as jobs in the post office were often considered the most prestigious places of employment in rural areas. Sometimes, that led to messy campaigns. For instance, during the 1945 appointment process for the Maysfield postmaster, one candidate sent Poage a letter containing the criminal indictments of another candidate’s family members, accusing that candidate of being part of a criminal gang. In Burlington’s 1937 campaign for postmaster, Poage received dozens of letters and petitions that accused the appointee of using “any hook, crook, or technicality” to acquire the high spot on the Civil Services exam.
Because legislators oversaw appointments for these positions, patronage of friends and loyal party members also became part of the process. During Poage’s first two or three terms, as he replaced or re-appointed many incumbents, he was tasked with determining who of the existing employees would be responsible and loyal Democrats. Many of Poage’s friends received the appointment of postmaster or rural carrier around the district. Poage often relied on these friends to measure the character of both incumbents and candidates. In this case as well, things can get messy. In Milano’s 1963 campaign for postmaster, one candidate had to respond to accusations around town about his alleged disloyalty to the Democratic Party. In response, he mailed Poage his poll taxes from the previous election to prove he voted Democrat. Many others received references and endorsements from constituents, and Poage’s friends would help to corroborate these endorsements.
Making the correct appointment for a rural carrier or postmaster position was important for several reasons, but for Poage it meant having eyes and ears on the ground. He often relied on his district’s postmasters to take the pulse of their town on politics, current events, and elections. Early in Poage’s congressional career, he battled efforts from his previous seat and political rival, Oliver Cross, aimed at undermining Poage’s position. Cross, or the “Old Gentleman,” would try to solicit the support of his old post office appointees and other citizens to vote against Poage in elections. Postmasters across the district would let Poage know of the Old Gentleman’s movements, so that he could mobilize friends and supporters to bolster his campaign. Postmasters would also report other political or local developments to Poage. During WWII, Poage received correspondence about a postmaster in Coryell City, who had been informally accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. Poage relied on correspondence from other postmasters to aid the Post Office Department and make the correct course of action for the accused.
Poage did not always win with the post office, however. Whenever there was a Republican administration in office, he would lose his ability to make post office appointments. This was widely apparent in the 1950s, when post office positions were filled by Republicans. Sometimes appointments took years to complete or were quickly reversed.
The relationship between a Representative and their district’s post offices could be beneficial to both, but often the responsibility runs a fine line that must be carefully navigated.