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This Day In Founding Fathers History – 20 February 2013

U.S. Postal ServiceOn this day in 1792, the Postal Act of 1792 was passed by Congress and signed by President Washington.  It was the “first substantive postal law enacted by the new government.” Newspapers were allowed to be mailed for the first time, and postage rates for newspapers and government documents were set below cost, especially for long distances. The price of sending a letter over 2,000 miles was anywhere from 6 to 12 cents. The primary function of the Post Office was seen as a means of spreading news and current events, helping “to generate a sense of national community.” The organization of the Post Office was specified that Congress would establish post roads, newspapers were to be included in deliveries, and it was deemed unlawful for postal workers to open mail. 1

John MarshallIn 1809 on this day, Chief Justice Marshall delivered the opinion of the court in the case United States v. Peters:

If the legislatures of the several states may, at will, annul the judgments of the courts of the United States, and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery; and the nation is deprived of the means of enforcing its laws by the instrumentality of its own tribunals. So fatal a result must be deprecated by all; and the people of Pennsylvania, not less than the citizens of every other state, must feel a deep interest in resisting principles so destructive of the union, and in averting consequences so fatal to themselves.

The act in question does not, in terms, assert the universal right of the state to interpose in every case whatever; but assigns, as a motive for its interposition in this particular case, that the sentence, the execution of which it prohibits, was rendered, in a cause over which the federal courts have no jurisdiction.

If the ultimate right to determine the jurisdiction of the courts of the union is placed by the constitution in the several state legislatures, then this act concludes the subject; but if that power necessarily resides in the supreme judicial tribunal of the nation, then the jurisdiction of the district court of Pennsylvania, over the case in which that jurisdiction was exercised, ought to be most deliberately examined; and the act of Pennsylvania, with whatever respect it may be considered, cannot be permitted to prejudice the question.

*      *      *      *      *

Judge Richard PetersIt is contended that the federal courts were deprived of jurisdiction, in this cause, by that amendment of the constitution which exempts states from being sued in those courts by individuals. This amendment declares, “that the judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit, in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.”

The right of a state to assert, as plaintiff, any interest it may have in a subject, which forms the matter of controversy between individuals, in one of the courts of the United States, is not affected by this amendment; nor can it be so construed as to oust the court of its jurisdiction, should such claim be suggested. The amendment simply provides, that no suit shall be commenced or prosecuted against a state. The state cannot be made a defendant to a suit brought by an individual; but it remains the duty of the courts of the United States to decide all cases brought before them by citizens of one state against citizens of a different state, where a state is not necessarily a defendant.

1 “Study on Universal Postal Service and the Postal Monopoly,” George Mason University School of Public Policy, prc.gov/PRC-DOCS/library/USO%20Appendices/Appendix%20C.pdf; “1792 Postal Act,” National Postal Museum, postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibits/2a1h_1792act.html; “Washington signs the Postal Act: Feb. 20, 1792,” Politico, politico.com/news/stories/0208/8592.html

2 “The United States v. Judge Peters,” Leagle, leagle.com/xmlResult.aspx?xmldoc=18091249US115_1110.xml&docbase=CSLWAR1-1950-1985

 

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