Benjamin Franklin, Hugh Finlay and the Birth of the Canadian Post Office

Canada - Scott #2649 (2013)
Canada – Scott #2649 (2013)

Renowned polymath and “First American” Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, on Mill Street in Boston, Massachusetts. One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, he was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. He campaigned for colonial unity, initially as an author and spokesman in London for several colonies and was the first United States Ambassador to France, exemplifying the emerging American nation and defining the American ethos as a marriage of the practical values of thrift, hard work, education, community spirit, self-governing institutions, and opposition to authoritarianism — both political and religious — with the scientific and tolerant values of the Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin was “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become,” according to Walter Isaacson.

An extensive biography of Benjamin Franklin and a look at the role he had in the earliest years of what eventually became the United States Post Office Department appeared on ‘A Stamp A Day’ last July. He has appeared on numerous stamps beginning with the first issue by the United States in 1847; Great Britain’s sole stamp marking the Bicentennial of the American Revolutionary War in 1776 featured Franklin. Today’s stamp, released by Canada on June 10, 2013, sparked, if not controversy, at least some curiosity. Why, people wondered, was one of the greatest Americans to have ever lived being honored on a Canadian stamp?

Long before Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first Postmaster-General of the United States on July 26, 1775, he’d been the postmaster of Philadelphia from 1737 until 1753. He was given this post based largely on his reputation as a printer and publisher. In 1753, Franklin and publisher William Hunter were named Deputy Postmasters General of British North America, the first to hold this office. Joint appointments were standard at the time for political reasons. In the United Kingdom, there had been two postmasters general assigned since 1691 to divide the patronage between the Whigs and Tories. This idea of sharing the post was abolished in 1823.

Abraham Bradley's postal map of the United States -- one of the most important 18th century maps of the United States, and a landmark in both the history of cartography and American Postal history. Bradley's map is one of only four large format maps of the United States to have been published in America prior to 1800. The map provides an exceptionally detailed look at the post offices and postal routes of America, as they existed at the end of the 18th Century, locating every post office then in operation. The map also includes the first known printing of the first American postal delivery time and route schedule.
Abraham Bradley’s 1796 postal map of the United States — one of the most important 18th century maps of the United States, and a landmark in both the history of cartography and American Postal history. Bradley’s map is one of only four large format maps of the United States to have been published in America prior to 1800. The map provides an exceptionally detailed look at the post offices and postal routes of America, as they existed at the end of the 18th Century, locating every post office then in operation. The map also includes the first known printing of the first American postal delivery time and route schedule. Bradley’s map is not only the first postal map of the United States, it includes the first printed postal route time table published in the United States, and is without question a seminal artifact in American postal history.

Benjamin Franklin was given the responsibility for the British colonies from Pennsylvania north and east, including Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.  According to The Oldest City: The Story of St. John’s, Newfoundland by Paul O’Neill, the first known letter sent from North America left St. John’s in August 1527. It would be another two centuries before a proper postal system was proposed in Canada, which was then under French control. Until 1735, mail from Quebec had to be transported to Montreal by river; however, that year, a road was opened between the two French colonies and a courier began carrying dispatches for a fee. Along this route, “post houses,” as they were originally known, began being established every 14 kilometers, where a maître de poste (postmaster) would receive messages and fees and convey mail to the next post house.

On April 23, 1754, a post office for local and outgoing mail was established in Halifax, Nova Scotia, by local stationer Benjamin Leigh, but service was irregular. Franklin opened the first post office to offer regular, monthly mail in what would later become Canada, at Halifax, on December 9, 1755. The post office in Halifax served as a link between the Atlantic colonies and Britain. During this time, Hunter became the postal administrator in Williamsburg, Virginia and oversaw areas south of Annapolis, Maryland.  Ben Franklin reorganized the service’s accounting system, then improved the speed of delivery between Philadelphia, New York and Boston. By 1761, efficiencies led to the first profits for the colonial post office.

When the lands of New France were ceded to the British under the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the new British province of Quebec was created among them, and Franklin established a post office there which saw mail service expanded between Montreal, Trois-Rivières, Quebec City, and New York. In 1765, one of the first mail vehicles — a two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage known as a caliche — began being used in British North America, marking the beginning of postal service during British control.

For the greater part of his appointment, Franklin lived in England (from 1757 to 1762, and again from 1764 to 1774) — about three-quarters of his term. On January 31, 1774, Franklin’s growing sympathy toward his country’s revolutionary interests led to his dismissal from his position of Deputy Postmaster General. In July 1775. having just returned from England, he was appointed chairman of a Committee of Investigation to establish a postal system in what would become the United States. The report of the Committee, providing for the appointment of a postmaster general for the 13 American colonies, was considered by the Second Continental Congress on July 25 and 26. On July 26, 1775, Franklin was appointed Postmaster General, the first appointed under the Continental Congress. It established a postal system that became the United States Post Office, a system that continues to operate today.

Following Franklin’s dismissal in Canada, Scottish-born immigrant Hugh Finlay (also spelt “Findlay”) was appointed to replace him as Deputy Postmaster General of the Canadas, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, with John Foxcroft. Arriving in Canada from Scotland shortly after the territory was ceded to Great Britain in 1763, he worked first as a merchant in Quebec and rose quickly among the English and French communities. No doubt his ability to read and speak French fluently added to his value as a businessman. Quebec’s city council soon appointed him a justice of the peace. On June 10, 1763, Benjamin Franklin put Finlay in charge of the colonial post office in Quebec and he assisted in establishing the post offices at Quebec, Trois–Rivières, and Montréal and setting the routes between these cities and New York.

Sketch of Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1749.
Sketch of Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1749.

Two years later, Finlay was appointed to the Governor’s Council, where he oversaw transportation and roads for the Crown. In December 1772 the British postmaster general appointed him Surveyor of Post Roads. In this position, he mapped out the most expedient routes in British North America to facilitate the safe delivery of mail. On September 13, 1773, Finlay began mapping out a new post route between Quebec and Falmouth, Maine. On October 2, 1773, he headed south from Falmouth through New England on a tour of post offices and roads. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, he boarded a boat to Charleston, South Carolina, to begin a journey northward to Virginia, where he ended his trek on May 24, 1774.

During his journeys, Finlay kept a detailed journal in which he documented the quality of roads and mail service, describing in rich detail the post offices, postmasters, and mail routes he encountered in his journeys through New England and the South, including an account of his travels through Quebec and touching on mail service in the cities of New York and Philadelphia. Finlay’s assessments of the postmasters and their records, and observations on the American colonists’ increasing antagonism toward Great Britain created a portrait of an intense and dedicated public servant who refused to back down from his allegiance to the British Crown.  The Journal Kept by Hugh Finlay, Surveyor of the Post Roads on the Continent of North America lay dormant for 80 years and was rediscovered in the belongings of a dead Swedenborgian minister in New York in the 1850s. It journal fell into the hands of publisher Frank H. Norton who owned the Mercantile Library Press in Brooklyn, New York. Norton transcribed the journal, carefully retaining the original wording and punctuation, publishing 150 copies of the text with his own introduction in 1867. A PDF copy is available for free here.

In 1775, mail service within the British colonies was being disrupted by the American revolutionaries. Because of the threat to his couriers’ lives, Finlay ceased all in-land service in Canada. As a loyalist, he found refuge in Canada when the war began. Always sensitive to the ways in which mail delivery might be improved, he participated in a correspondence with the British Home Office in the 1780s. Urging colonization in Canada, and the creation of postal offices every 10 miles, he advocated the use of snowshoes for postal officers in a 1783 letter: “Till then the Mails must be drag’d on handsleighs by men on snowshoes, a painful and slow mode of Journeying in the winter, but there’s no other way of getting forward in a country four, five, or six feet deep with snow, without inhabitants to beat and keep the way open.”

In 1787, Hugh Finlay was given responsibility over the whole postal service of British North America, not including the newly formed United States. Because the American Revolution brought an influx of Loyalist immigrants to Canada, there was an increased demand for improved postal services. Hugh Finlay eventually hired a courier to establish a route, which travelled through 1,000 kilometers of wilderness and required nearly four months to traverse both ways, from Quebec to Halifax.

A page from Hugh Finlay's 1773-1774 journal.
A page from Hugh Finlay’s 1773-1774 journal.

Finlay’s participation in the first international postal convention in New York in 1792 led to a significant decision by the Americans to permit mail from Canada to pass through New York. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, Finlay was dismissed from his position in 1799 on the grounds of irregularities in accounting, even though the charge referred to a postmaster under him, not to him directly. Finlay died on December 26, 1801, deeply in debt. His life had been one of courage, tenacity, and allegiance to the Crown. From his early days as a postal surveyor to later years as an administrator, Finlay set an example for public service in the wilderness and city alike.

Hugh Finlay knew the American character well, even before the first shots at Lexington, At the beginning of his tour of the Eastern seaboard, he observed the colonists’ character: “They are[,] they say[,] to be governed by Laws of their own framing, and no other.” In the face of opposition, unpopularity, and the growing resentment of a nation, however, Finlay remained a steady loyalist civil servant. As he confidently declared to a group of North Carolinians he visited regarding the postal system in British North America in 1774, “The Publick good is the sole inducement for taking so much trouble as we do.”

The Post Office Department of Canada has been known as the Canada Post Corporation since 1981. It was among the first federal departments established following Canadian Confederation in 1867. On April 1, 1868, the department took over the country’s postal service.

Canada #2649 uses the same H.B.Hall engraving of Joseph-Siffred Duplessis portrait of an older Benjamin Franklin that has been used on the United States $100 bill since 1996.
Canada #2649 uses the same H.B.Hall engraving of Joseph-Siffred Duplessis portrait of an older Benjamin Franklin that has been used on the United States $100 bill since 1996.

While Benjamin Franklin was Canada’s first postmaster general as established the first post office in Halifax, in Canada Finlay is celebrated for having introduced the courier service from Montreal to New York to reach the monthly packet sailing to England, an ambitious innovation that put cash in the coffers of the British Post Office which paid Finlay on the basis of his earnings. So, then, why is Benjamin Franklin portrayed on this stamp marking 250 years of Canadian postal history rather than Hugh Finlay? Many Canadians wondered the same thing at the time of release with Canada Post spokesperson Jon Hamilton defending the stamp, stating, “You can’t ignore the fact that the first postmaster appointed to set up postal service in this new land that eventually became Canada was Benjamin Franklin, He’s noted for doing a number of things… but this is important.”

However, there are two subtle connections to Hugh Finlay on this stamp. The background features a view of Quebec City when Halifax may have been more appropriate for a stronger Benjamin Franklin connection. The stamp was released on June 10, the anniversary of the date that Finlay was appointed Deputy Postmaster General of Quebec.

Scott #2649 was designed by Andrew Perro and printed using seven-color offset lithography by The Lowe-Martin Group. The multicolor self-adhesive stamps have serpentine die cut perforations measuring 13¼ with 1,350,000 copies printed in booklet panes of 10 stamps each (Scott #2649a). They are non-denominated “P” stamps, then valued at 63 cents. The stamp, die-cut to shape from the Quarterly Pack/Annual Collection is Scott-listed as #2649i.

Flag of Canada, adopted February 21, 1965

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