“You must write me a good long letter after you get this,” implored Abraham Lincoln to his estranged fiancée, Mary S. Owens. “You have nothing else to do, and though it might not seem interesting to you, after you had written it, it would be a good deal of company to me in this ‘busy wilderness.’” Lincoln’s reference to Sangamon County as a ‘busy wilderness” was written only slightly in jest. Indeed, Lincoln shared the expansive dreams that most residents had for the future of the county and the towns that had sprung up within its boundaries. The dreams were built on visions of personal happiness and material advancement. A fundamental element in realizing these visions rested upon the United States Postal System.
Tradition has it that Abraham Lincoln was appointed postmaster of New Salem after women of the village complained about the poor service being given by Samuel Hill and petitioned for his removal. Even though Lincoln was an anti-Jackson man, President Andrew Jackson approved Lincoln’s appointment, being one among hundreds of postmaster applications to be approved. The postal system was 19th -century America’s version of the Internet. The mails transported information that helped individuals in business and professional development, and the mails provided personal correspondence of the nature Lincoln was seeking from Mary Owens – letters that could be read again and again in the absence of a loved one. Letters were precious objects, conveying heartfelt sentiments and sharing experiences and dreams for a better life.
A small collection of letters sent from New Salem by residents Matthew Marsh and James Fox Clarke describes the rich Illinois prairie soil and the wonderful opportunities for farming and raising a family. By enticing family and friends from the exhausted soils of New England to a new life in Illinois, the letters were part of a chain migration, encouraging the rapid settlement of the area. The post office also provided access to newspapers and political speeches made by congressmen, connecting individuals on the frontier to a larger identity as a community, state, and nation.
Abraham Lincoln’s brief, three-year tenure as postmaster offered him many benefits. Since mail was not delivered, people had to pick their mail up from Lincoln; this system allowed him to read the various state and national newspapers subscribed to by various residents. Unlike service today by which the sender pays for the cost of postage, in Lincoln’s time as postmaster, the recipient paid for the privilege of receiving mail. Postal rates varied depending on the distance traveled and the number of pages in the letter. A single sheet cost 6 cents for the first 30 miles, and up to 25 cents for more than 400 miles. But Lincoln was willing to accommodate the residents of the area and occasionally placed correspondence in his hat if he were traveling in the direction of postal patrons located miles outside the village. He also bent the rules by using his franking privileges as postmaster to waive the cost of a letter for a resident. Mathew Marsh provided a sketch of Lincoln as postmaster in a letter to his brother: “he is a very clever fellow and a particular friend of mine. If he is there when I carry this [letter] to the office—I will get him to ‘Frank’ it.” And frank it Lincoln did, saving George Marsh 25 cents.
New Salem gave way to the town of Petersburg, ending Lincoln’s career as postmaster on May 30, 1836. Lincoln had clearly enjoyed his brief stint as postmaster. He provided the line of communication with the larger world beyond frontier Illinois. The office allowed a young man with political ambitions an opportunity to meet and mingle with townspeople and farmers alike. And by connecting with the outside world, the office brought new information and ideas to feed the ambitions and imagination of people, like Lincoln, who saw their future in the further settlement and growth of Illinois.