Most letters deliver news, express friendship or conduct ordinary everyday business. Sometimes, however, they do more than that. Occasionally a letter changes the course of a nation or of the world. Here are four notable letters that set history on a different course.
Abraham Lincoln Grows a Beard
With the Lincoln Memorial and his face on a penny, it sometimes seems inevitable that Honest Abe would become president, preside over the Civil War and issue the Emancipation Proclamation. But when he was a candidate, he had what today would be called an image problem. His thin bare visage was sometimes called a “hatchet face.”
An 11-year-old girl, Grace Bedell of Westfield, New York, wrote him a now historical letter suggesting he would look better in a beard. She said that ladies would admire his whiskers and encourage their husbands to vote for him.
Before and after photographs show a bearded Lincoln as looking warmer and more approachable. It may even have saved him from assassination. There was a plot to kill him on the way to his inauguration, but his would-be murderers may have failed to recognise him in his “disguise.”
A Mother Instructs Her Son To Let Her Vote
In 1920, one more state was needed to ratify the nineteenth amendment and give American women the right to vote. The issue was up for a vote in Tennessee, and the legislature was split exactly 50-50. Those lawmakers who intended to vote “no” wore red roses in their lapels, while the “pros” wore yellow.
Harry T. Blum had red on his lapel, but he also had a letter from his mother in his pocket. It told him to be a “good boy” and vote in favor. Despite pressure from his anti-suffrage colleagues, when his turn came he tore off his red rose and voted “yes.” Tennessee ratified, and female suffrage was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
An Historical Letter Stops an Explosion
Around midnight of November 4, 1605, Guy Fawkes was sitting in a cellar of the Parliament building with 36 barrels of gunpowder. He aimed to blow up King James I and all of Parliament the next day when the session opened. What Fawkes didn’t know was that an anonymous letter had been sent to Lord Monteagle warning him to find some excuse not to be there in order to save his life.
Monteagle took the letter to Robert Cecil, the king’s head spy, and Cecil was able to unravel the plot, capture Fawkes and save Parliament. It never came out who wrote the letter, but some suspected it was Lord Monteagle himself, who was rewarded with some land for his part.
A Different Historical Letter Starts an Explosion
On August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt saying that he, Einstein, was convinced that a devastating new weapon was possible. He referred to recent research involving uranium and the new energy sources it would allow for.
Roosevelt didn’t take note of the letter until October of that year, but shortly after that he formed the Uranium Committee. That committee was a forerunner of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It’s interesting that one of the letters was written by a well-known person, two by ordinary folks and the other by someone whose identify we don’t know. Anyone, it seems, might write the next letter that changes the course of history.