It’s easy enough to think about letters as simply personal or professional correspondence. Yes, they were the main outlet for remote communication in the pre-email and pre-phone days, but to many, letters seemed more like routine check-ins or instructions.
Or did they?
As we look at critical events in history, famous letters often play important roles. They can send observations from the battlefield which can influence military campaign decisions. They can share intelligence that leaders can use to create or change policy. They can offer interesting insight that someone might need in their life to take action.
Plus, from a purely historical perspective, letters are one of the best tools scholars have to learn more about what led to significant events. What messages convinced a leader to go to war or push for peace? What opinions were listened to or disregarded?
When looking at all the famous letters out there, it’s hard to pick the ones that had the greatest impact. But the following are some of the more interesting and noteworthy ones at least.
- King Henry VII to the Vatican. In 1518, England’s ruling monarch wrote to Pope Leo X requesting that he be allowed to marry another woman since his wife, Catherine of Aragon, hadn’t been able to produce a male heir. The pope refused, which led to the king declaring himself the head of the Church of England, an institution that’s still around. As head, he gave himself permission to divorce and dispose of several other future wives. The initial letter to Rome shared his loyalty and support for the Catholic Church which he felt equated to an official dispensation. Henry VIII was actually quite verbose with the written word, and many of his letters to future lovers and wives were quite articulate.
- Martin Luther King Jr., open letter. The American civil rights leader in the 1960s had a strong message and passionate goals, but wasn’t getting the support from his fellow Blacks in early efforts along with plenty of opposition from the White establishment. While some of his peers were advocating violence as the only remaining solution, he came up with a plan of non-violence while jailed in Alabama. His open letter went to newspapers, political leaders, general supporters, and faith leaders, and these changed tactics began to get results in the struggle for equality.
- Paul’s letters. While much of the Bible can be thought of as collected oral history and people chronicling their personal experiences, a significant part of the New Testament involves a collection of letters from Paul, who initially opposed the new religion, became one of its fiercest advocates and defenders. Depending on which version of the Bible you use, 13 or 14 famous letters he wrote to other missionaries and early church officials are considered canon, many of which he wrote while in prison. They generally have themes of lending support in difficult times, and helping the reader better understand the Christian message.
- Abraham Lincoln to Lydia Bixby. The 16thS. president is known for impressive speeches such as the Gettysburg Address or writing the Emancipation Proclamation. But he also was known to be quite articulate and poignant with his correspondence. He wrote many letters to people who had lost loved ones, but one is often held up as the perfect example of compassion without being overly verbose. In November 1864, he wrote a letter to a widow whose sons had fought and died in the Union Army. He offered his condolences, but also encouraged her to be strong in her faith.