Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters


Letters of a Nation is a unique and timeless collection of extraordinary letters spanning more than 350 years of American history, from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the present day. Many of the more than 200 letters are published here for the first time, and the correspondents are the celebrated and obscure, the powerful and powerless, including presidents, slaves, soldiers, prisoners, explorers, writers, revolutionaries, Native Americans, artists, religious and civil rights leaders, and people from all walks ...
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Letters of a Nation is a unique and timeless collection of extraordinary letters spanning more than 350 years of American history, from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the present day. Many of the more than 200 letters are published here for the first time, and the correspondents are the celebrated and obscure, the powerful and powerless, including presidents, slaves, soldiers, prisoners, explorers, writers, revolutionaries, Native Americans, artists, religious and civil rights leaders, and people from all walks of life. From the serious (Harry Truman defending his use of the atomic bomb) to the surreal (Elvis Presley to Richard Nixon on fighting drugs in America), this collection of letters covers the full spectrum of human emotion, illuminates the American experience, and celebrates the simple yet lasting art of letter writing.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Fascinating! . . . I couldn't stop turning the pages."
--Abigail Van Buren ("Dear Abby")

"Here is America's heart and soul, as rendered by a wide range of citizens whose words, in their stirring and instructive sum, tell us who we are as a people, what we've become as a nation."
--Dr. Robert Coles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Spiritual Life of Children

"There simply isn't a dull passage to be found in this mind-opening, heart-stretching volume."

A collection of some 200 letters by Presidents, slaves, soldiers, prisoners, revolutionaries, artists, religious and civil rights leaders, and Americans from all walks of life, spanning 350 years of American culture and history. Letters offer eyewitness accounts of political and social upheaval, reveal private fears of the famous and powerful, and remind us of the horrors of war. Writers include Malcolm X, Elvis Presley, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, and Benjamin Franklin.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767903318
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/1999
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 491,703
  • Product dimensions: 5.24 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrew Carroll is the executive director of the American Poetry & Literacy Project, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that promotes literacy and encourages a greater public awareness of poetry. The author of several books, he lives in Washington, D.C.

Marian Wright Edelman is the founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, as well as the author of the New York Times #1 bestseller The Measure of Our Success.

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Read an Excerpt

Harry S Truman to Irv Kupcinet

In August 1945, after more than six years of fighting and with tens of millions of people killed worldwide, World War II was over. Although the world celebrated the end of the war, there was also intense debate about the use of the atomic bomb to bring it to a conclusion. "I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb," President Harry Truman said in a radio address before the Japanese finally surrendered, "[but we] have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans."  Eighteen years later Truman felt just as strongly. He was still being criticized for his judgment, and he was grateful to those who supported him. In July of 1963, Irv Kupcinet of the Chicago Sun Times wrote a favorable column on Truman and his decision, and Truman wrote the following letter in response.

August 5, 1963

Dear Kup:

I appreciated most highly your column of July 30th, a copy of which you sent me.

I have been rather careful not to comment on the articles that have been written on the dropping of the bomb for the simple reason that the dropping of the bomb was completely and thoroughly explained in my Memoirs, and it was done to save 125,000 youngsters on the American side and 125,000 on the Japanese side from getting killed and that is what it did. It probably also saved a half million youngsters on both sides from being maimed for life.

You must always remember that people forget, as you said in your column, that the bombing of Pearl Harbor was done while we were at peace with Japan and trying our best to negotiate a treaty with them.

All you have to do is to go out and stand on the keel of the Battleship in Pearl Harbor with the 3,000 youngsters underneath it who had no chance whatever of saving their lives. That is true of two or three other battleships that were sunk in Pearl Harbor. Altogether, there were between 3,000 and 6,000 youngsters killed at that time without any declaration of war. It was plain murder.

I knew what I was doing when I stopped the war that would have killed a half million youngsters on both sides if those bombs had not been dropped. I have no regrets and, under the same circumstances, I would do it again--and this letter is not confidential.

Sincerely yours,

Harry S Truman

Despite writing that the letter was not confidential, Truman told his secretary to hold it.  The letter was never sent.

Elvis Presley to President Richard M. Nixon

A famous photograph of President Richard Nixon warmly shaking hands with a dazed Elvis Presley was the result of an impromptu meeting after Presley sent the president a letter while visiting Washington, D.C.  Written by Presley on five pages of American Airlines notepaper in a barely legible scrawl, the letter expresses deep admiration for the president and a willingness to serve as a "Federal Agent at Large to help stem America's growing drug problem."  Inconceivable as the whole scenario may seem, the letter, reprinted here, is real.

Dear Mr. President,

First, I would like to introduce myself.  I am Elvis Presley and admire you and have Great Respect for your office. I talked to Vice President Agnew in Palm Springs three weeks ago and expressed my concern for our country. The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it, The Establishment. I call it America and I love it. Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help The Country out.  I have no concerns or Motives other than helping the country out.  So I wish not to be given a title or an appointed position. I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large and I will help out by doing it my way through my communications with people of all ages. First and foremost, I am an entertainer, but all I need is the Federal credentials. I am on this plane with Senator George Murphy and we have been discussing the problems that our country is faced with.

Sir, I am staying at the Washington Hotel, Room 505-506-507. I have two men who work with me by the name of Jerry Schilling and Sonny West. I am registered under the name of Jon Burrows. I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent. I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.

I am Glad to help just so long as it is kept very Private. You can have your staff or whomever call me anytime today, tonight, or tomorrow. I was nominated this coming year one of America's Ten Most Outstanding Young Men. That will be in January 18 in my home town of Memphis, Tennessee. I am sending you the short autobiography about myself so you can better understand this approach. I would love to meet you just to say hello if you're not too busy.


Elvis Presley

P.S. I believe that you, Sir, were one of the Top Ten Outstanding Men of America also.

I have a personal gift for you which I would like to present to you and you can accept it or I will keep it for you until you can take it.

President Nixon invited Presley to the White House, and an aide took notes of the December 21, 1970, meeting; "[Presley] mentioned that he has been studying the drug culture for over ten years. He mentioned that he knew a lot about this and was accepted by the hippies. He said he could go right into a group of young people or hippies and be accepted which he felt could be helpful to him in his drug drive. The President indicated again his concern that Presley retain his credibility. At the conclusion of the meeting, Presley again told the President how much he supported him, and then, in a surprising, spontaneous gesture, put his left arm around the President and hugged him."  President Nixon later sent Presley a note thanking him for the personal gift--a commemorative World War II pistol--and provided Presley with an honorary badge. Presley was not, however, given "Federal Agent credentials."

John Steinbeck to His Son Thom

John Steinbeck, the best-selling author and Nobel laureate, enjoyed the duties of fatherhood and dispensed advice to his two sons when it was requested--and sometimes when it was not. When Steinbeck's son Thom was fourteen he attended boarding school in Connecticut and met a young girl named Susan with whom he thought he might be in love. His father, then living in New York with his second wife, Elaine, offered his views on the matter.

November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First--if you are in love--that's a good thing--that's about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don't let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second--There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you--of kindness, and consideration and respect--not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn't know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply--of course it isn't puppy love.

But I don't think you were asking me what you feel. You know that better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it--and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone--there is no possible harm in saying so--only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another--but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I am glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don't worry about losing. If it is right, it happens--The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.



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First Chapter



It seems almost an impossibility to me how anyone can look forward to living their life out in the same place and doing the same things that their fathers and grandfathers did before them. Today as I think of what the world is and that I have my life before me, nothing seems impossible. I wish that as in the story books, some fairy might place the mirror of life before me and tell me to look at whatever scene I wished. Yet if it could be so, I can hardly say but I should close my eves and refuse to look. How many have wished and wondered about the mysterious future as I do, and yet if the curtain were permitted to be drawn aside, would shrink from doing it for fear of gazing upon rugged rocks and yawning graves, in place of the velvety paths they wished for.

Robert E. Peary; explorer, to his mother on his twentieth birthday;

May 6, 1876

John Winthrop to His Wife Margaret

To John Winthrop and his fellow Puritans, England in the 1620s was an increasingly ominous place to live. Economic depression threatened even wealthy landowners like Winthrop, and the ascension of King Charles I, who was sympathetic to Roman Catholicism and impatient with Puritan reformers, did not bode well. In April 1630 Winthrop and one thousand other English men and women sailed to the New World, where they made their home in Massachusetts with Winthrop as governor. On September 9, 1630, eleven weeks after his arrival, Winthrop sent his wife Margaret, in England, the following letter describing the great challenges they faced and his hopes for their future well-being. (The Winthrops agreed, in their correspondence, to seek spiritual communion with one another on Mondays and Fridays.)

My dear wife,

The blessing of God all-sufficient be upon thee and all my dear ones with thee forever.

I praise the good Lord, though we see much morality, sickness, and trouble, yet (such is His mercy) myself and children with most of my family, are yet living, and in health, and enjoy prosperity enough, if the afflictions of our brethren did not hold under the comfort of it. The Lady Arbella is dead, and good Mr. Higginson, my servant, old Waters of Neyland, and many others. Thus the Lord is pleased still to humble us; yet he mixes so many mercies with His corrections, as we are persuaded He will not cast us off, but, in His due time, will do us good, according to the measure of our afflictions. He stays but till He hath purged our corruptions, and healed the hardness and error of our hearts, and stripped us of our vain confidence in this arm of flesh, that He may have as rely wholly upon Himself.

The French ship, so long expected, and given for lost, is now come safe to us, about a fortnight since, having been twelve weeks at sea; and yet her passengers (being but a few) all safe and well but one, and her goats but six living of eighteen. So as now we are somewhat refreshed with such goods and provisions as she brought, though much thereof hath received damage by wet. I praise God, we have many occasions of comfort here, and do hope, that our days of affliction will soon have an end, and that the Lord will do us more good in the end than we could have expected, that will abundantly recompense for all the troubles we have endured. Yet we may not look at great things here. It is enough that we shall have Heaven, though we should pass through Hell to it. We here enjoy God and Jesus Christ. Is not this enough? What would we have more? I thank God; I like so well to be here as I do not repent my coming and if I were to come again. I would not have altered my course, though I had foreseen all these afflictions. I never fared better in my life, never slept better, never had more content of mind, which comes merely of the Lord's good hand; for we have not the like means of these comforts here, which we had in England. But the Lord is all-sufficient, blessed be If is holy name. If He please, He can still uphold us in this estate; but if He shall see good to make us partakers with others in more affliction. His will be done. He is our God, and may dispose of us as He sees good.

I am sorry to part with thee so soon, seeing we meet so seldom, and my much business hath made me too oft forget Mondays and Fridays. I long for the time, when I may see thy sweet face again, and the faces of my dear children. But I must break off, and desire to thee to commend me kindly to all my good friends, and excuse my not writing at this time. If God please once to settle me, I shall make amends I will name now but such as are nearest to thee: my brother and sister Gostlin, Mr Leigh. etc., Castleins, my neighbor Cole and his good wife, with the rest of my good neighbors, tenants, and servants. The good Lord bless thee, and all our Children and family. So I kiss my sweet wife and my dear children, and rest.

Thy faithful husband

Jo: Winthrop

Margaret Winthrop, pregnant at the time her husband wrote this, joined him in 1631. Tragically, the baby died en route.

Roger William to the of Providence, Rhode Island & Cotton Mather to His Uncle John Cotton

Although many of the first pilgrims were exceedingly intolerant of faiths different from their own, one of the earliest settlers, Roger Williams, actually subscribed to the idea of religious freedom. Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay by the revered minister John Cotton Sr. for suggesting that there be a separation of civil and religious authority and that they break from the Church of England. Moving to Rhode Island, Williams ultimately created a sanctuary for people of varying faiths, including Jews. In the early to mid-1650s, the citizens of Providence found themselves in a quarrel as to whether it was possible to respect religious differences and also to maintain shared laws and order. In the following letter to the town of Providence, Williams concedes it is an immense issue but nevertheless offers his views on reconciling religious freedom with the need for common laws.


To the Town of Providence,

That ever I should speak or write a tittle, that tends to such an infinite liberty of conscience, is a mistake, and which I have ever disclaimed and abhorred. To prevent such mistakes, I shall at present only propose this case: There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or a human combination or society. It hath fallen out sometimes, that both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in one ship; upon which supposal I affirm, that all the liberty of conscience, that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges--that none of the Papists. Protestants, Jews, or Turks be forced to come to the ship's prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any. I further add, that I never denied, that notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command the ship's course, yea, and also command that justice, peace, and sobriety be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers. If any of the seamen refuse to perform their services, or passengers to pas their freight; if any refuse to help, in person or purse, towards the common charges or defence; if any refuse to obey the common laws and orders of the ship, concerning their common peace or preservation; if any shall mutiny and rise up against their commanders and officers; if any should preach or write that there ought to be no commanders or officers, because all are equal in Christ, therefore no masters nor officers, no laws or orders, nor corrections nor punishments; I say, I never denied, but in such cases, whatever is pretended, the commander or commanders may judge, resist, compel, and punish such transgressors, according to their deserts and merits. This if seriously and honestly minded, may, if it so please the Father of Lights, let in some light to such as willingly shut not their eyes.

I remain studious of your common peace and liberty.

Roger Williams

The passing of Roger Williams's antagonist, John Cotton Sr., in 1652 by no means stemmed the tide of religious persecution in the colonies. Cotton Mather, the grandson of John Cotton Sr. and Richard Mather, rose to eminence by publicly denouncing those he believed were undermining the old Puritan ways with inferior and "blasphemous" religions. In 1692 Mather struck his most notorious blow in defense of his own faith when he fanned the flames of suspicion against women he thought to be witches. In the following letter to his uncle, John Cotton Jr., Mather expresses enthusiasm for the demise of a small band of witches and reflects on a recent earthquake in Jamaica.

August 5, 1692

Reverend Sir,

Our good God is working of miracles. Five witches were lately executed, impudently demanding of God a miraculous vindication of their innocency. Immediately upon this, our God miraculously sent in five Andover witches, who made a most ample, surprising, amazing confession of all their villainies, and declared the five newly executed to have been of their company, discovering mans more, but all agreeing in Burroughs being their ringleader, who, I suppose, this day receives his trial at Salem, whither a vast concourse of people is gone, my father this morning among the rest. Since those, there have come in other confessors; yea, they come in daily. About this prodigious matter my soul has been refreshed with some little short of miraculous answers of prayer which are not to be written; but they comfort me with a prospect of a hopeful issue.

The whole town yesterday turned the lecture into a fast, kept in our meeting-house; God give a good return. But in the morning we were entertained with the horrible tidings of the late earthquake at Jamaica, on the 7th of June last When, on a fair day, the sea suddenly swelled, and the earth shook and broke in many places; and in a minute's time, the rich town of Port-Royal, the Tyrus of the whole English America, but a very Sodom for wickedness, was immediately swallowed up, and the sea came rolling over the town. No less than seventeen-hundred souls of that one town are missing, besides other incredible devastations all over the island, where houses are demolished, mountains overturned, rocks rent and all manner of destruction inflicted. The Non-conformist minister there escaped wonderfully with his life. Some of our poor New England people are lost in the ruins, and others have their bones broke. Forty vessels were sunk--namely all whose cables did not break; but no New England ones. Behold an accident speaking to all our English America. I live in pains, and want your prayers. Bestow them, dear Sir, on Your,

Cotton Mather

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2010

    Great for the Nightstand!

    Entertaining, serious, and funny! Great for those nights when you don't have a novel going but want something to read. Letters by famous people about mundane topics and letters from not so famous people about serious topics. Our book club thoroughly enjoyed reading random letters.

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