The U.S. Postal Service defaulted on a payment of more than $5 billion due to the U.S. Treasury to fund future retiree benefits, but this isn't the first fiscal crisis to challenge the nation's mail delivery service.

In 1842, "the United States was in the fifth year of an economic crisis that began with the collapse of a speculative bubble," and "the Post Office Department was caught in the downward spiral," writes Law Professor Alasdair Roberts in a Los Angeles Times oped, "Post office blues -- of 1842."

The Post Office of the nineteenth century was saved when Congress strengthened its monopoly over mail delivery, but Roberts can't predict the same outcome in today's competitive environment.

Roberts holds the Jerome Lyle Rappaport Chair in Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School and is the author of "America's First Great Depression: Economic and Political Disorder After the Panic of 1837."