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Kernell and McDonald: Congress and American political development

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Kernell and McDonald. 1999. Congress and American political development. AJPS.

See also Kernell 2001.

In Brief


For years, members of Congress (MCs) from rural districts used their power to appoint fourth-class postmasters as a major patronage reward for loyal partisans. But in the late 19th century--a period which scholars associate with presidential (not Congressional) efforts at reform--Congress led the way in eliminating this useful patronage position (fourth-class postmasters) and replacing it with rural free delivery. Why?


Why would MCs eliminate fourth-class postmasters, a valuable source of patronage, and replace them with rural free delivery routes? Because the American political landscape was shifting from a system that favors patronage (and labor-intensive campaigns) to a system that favors MCs who can make a large number of their constituents happy--and RFD was the ultimate form of constituency service for rural districts. Moreover, RFD was a major part of the Populist platform, and farmers were considering leaving the Republicans for the Populists. By hijacking the Populists' arguments for RFD, Republicans won over some of the Populist supporters.

The Argument: History of Rural Free Delivery (RFD)

In the 19th century, rural Americans had to visit a post office to pick up their mail; there was no rural delivery. These small rural offices were called run by fourth-class postmasters. Usually, these postmasters ran the post office as a small side business within a general store, hotel, bar, or some other business they owned. Although they received only a small stipend for their work, they could make a lot of money by selling stamps. Since being a fourth-class postmaster involved little work but could bring in a lot of side income, it was an attractive job.

Also, the late 19th century was a period in which MCs relied on party activists in order to win labor-intensive campaigns. Generally, the best way to get people to actively work on your campaign was to promise them some material reward for doing so. A position as a fourth-class postmaster was one of the best rewards that MCs could offer. In fact, it became customary in this period for all the fourth-class postmasters to be replaced if an incumbent was defeated. MCs jealously guarded their power to name their supporters to this position.

Increasingly, however, rural Americans began to demand free delivery. Urban free delivery had been available for some time, but not rural free delivery (RFD). Initially, there was some hesitation, but Congress soon took the lead in allocating money to the post office for a trial. Congress had to press a reluctant post office to try RFD. Once started, however, RFD was wildly popular. It generated such an increase in stamp sales that it almost paid for itself. However, demand for RFD outpaced the post office's ability to supply it. Thus, MCs had to find some way to decide which routes would be set up first.

Research Question

By studying which routes were set up first, we can determine whether the post office was setting up RFD routes in response to Congress's political demands (as Kernell and McDonald argue) or in response to demands for increased governmental efficiency (as many previous articles have argued).


  • Y: The number of RFD routes established in each rural district.
  • X1: The partisanship of the district's MC. Since there was a Republican majority at the time, we expect Republican districts to have RFD routes set up first. (As it turns out, they had several times more RFD routes than Democratic districts did.)
  • X2: The local MC's political needs. In "Republican takeaway" districts, a freshman Republican was occupying a seat held (until the previous election) by a Democrat. Since these seats were most vulnerable, we expect party leaders to favor giving these freshman MCs a political boost (i.e. more RFD routes). Then, Republicans in "continuing" (i.e. non-takeaway) districts get some routes. Finally, Democrats get the fewest routes. Electorally vulnerable Democratic takeaway districts received the fewest routes.
  • X3: MC's margin in last election. An indicator of the MC's vulnerability. MCs who won by smaller margins get more RFD routes.
  • X4: Literacy. This controls for the possible counterargument. At the time, Republicans justified ignoring Democratic districts by claiming that people in those districts were less literate, so they needed RFD less. While technically true, this variable does not correlate with the distribution of RFD routes.


See Figure 2 (p 807). Very nice graph.