Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children

Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children

by Dorie McCullough Lawson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767909044
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/22/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 294,985
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 14 Years

About the Author

Dorie McCullough Lawson graduated from Middlebury College, where she majored in history. She works and lives in Rockport, Maine with her husband and three children. This is her first book.

Read an Excerpt

William Henry Seward to William Henry Seward, Jr.

"How good and virtuous and just ought we to be and how thankful to God that we have blessings secured by the virtue and sufferings of our ancestors."

One of the most important political figures of the mid-nineteenth century, William Henry Seward was governor of New York, then senator, then secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln. As a leading voice in the condemnation of slavery, it was he who delivered the courageous line on the floor of the Senate evoking a "higher law." Later, in 1867, it was Seward, the ever devoted proponent of American expansion and progress, who secured the purchase of Alaska for the United States. With thick, disheveled hair and a prominent nose, Seward, according to Henry Adams, looked like a "wise macaw." Charming and relaxed, he was a welcomed guest and a favorite among the Washington hostesses.

In the fall of 1848, he was running for the first time for a seat in the United States Senate. He campaigned in his home state, New York, and traveled about the East Coast speaking on behalf of the Republican Party. Here, with his characteristic broad sense of time, William Seward, the grandson of a Revolutionary War colonel, writes to his son Willie, a nine-year-old boy at home with persistent eye troubles.

[October 7, 1848]
Wilmington in the State of Delaware, Monday

My dear Boy

I am very much obliged to you for your letter which gives me much interesting information. I will try to procure in New York a filter which will purify the water of the new pump.

I have been at many places in Pennsylvania where I wished that you were strong enough to be with me. When you grow strong enough I shall want you to travel with me. I saw on the banks of the Schuylkill, Valley Forge the place where General Washington had his camp during one of the most severe winters which occurred during the American Revolution. His camp extended four miles long with two entrenchments in front and high mountains on the one side and a deep creek on the other. From the mountain in rear he could see with his spy glass the British army in Philadelphia seventy miles off. He was almost destitute of ammunition to protect himself. The Congress was not able to supply him with money, the army was in deplorable want of bread and meat clothes and shoes. They suffered exceedingly. The poor horses and dogs died of hunger and diarrhea and death extended to the men, a dozen were buried in a day and in one place, scarcely beneath the frost in the surface of the ground. The farmer now often turns up the bones of the lost men when plowing his fields. Mrs. Washington was a good woman, she spent the winter in the camp and she served and consoled the sick and dying. It was by such sacrifice that Liberty was obtained for the American people. How good and virtuous and just ought we to be and how thankful to God that we have blessings secured by the virtue and sufferings of our ancestors. I hope you will get Peter Parley's history of the Revolution and ask Ma to read to you the account of the Revolution and then I hope you will resolve to be a good man like General Washington that all people may love and bless you.

I saw canal boats on railroad cars in Pennsylvania loaded with freight, and what is very strange is that as the boats are too long for the curves of the Rail Roads, they build the boats into three pieces, and when they get on the mountains they put them together with hooks and let them down into the Canal and float them to Lake Erie. Yet they do not take in a drop of water. Can you guess how this is done?

Your affectionate father
William H. Seward.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Margaret L. Stanton

". . . I feel that . . . I am making the path smoother for you and Hattie and all the other dear girls."

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a plump and jolly mother of seven, was a revolutionary. Dressed in yards of black silk and lace, with her white hair curled neatly beneath her bonnet, she charmed and excited audiences across the country. She often began with talk of children and motherhood and then deftly moved on to property rights, divorce reform, and the right to vote. "You may never be wives, mothers or housekeepers," she explained, "but you will be women."

Nineteenth-century American women could not vote, could not sign a contract or serve on a jury. Married women were not permitted to own or inherit property, or to earn or invest money, and in the case of a divorce, the custody of the children automatically went to the father. For fifty-four years, from 1848 until her death in 1902, Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought vehemently for overall social justice for women. In organizing meetings and writing speeches, she was tireless; for eight months of each year during the 1870s, she toured the country lecturing. Spreading the word and earning a living, Stanton delivered one speech a day and two on Sundays in town after town. Here, describing a typical day on the road, she writes from Austin, Minnesota, to her twenty-year-old daughter, a student at Vassar.

To Margaret L. Stanton
Au[st]in, Minnesota, December 1, 1872

Dear Madge:

Imagine me to-day sitting in a small comfortable room in the railroad hotel about a half mile from this little Minnesota town, where I do not know one soul. But as everybody is polite and attentive, I suppose they all know me. I spoke last evening at Waterloo, and in order to reach here, my next place, I was obliged to leave at midnight. So after my lecture, I had an oyster supper, packed up my finery, and, all ready to start, took a short nap on the sofa. I was called at two. But as the horses were sick and I was the only guest going from the hotel westward, I was toted, I and my baggage, in a little cart drawn by a mule through a fearful snow storm, the wind cutting like particles of glass. Having arrived safely at the depot, my escort, a good natured, over-grown boy, deposited me and mine beside a red-hot stove. Learning then and there that the train was two hours behind, I rolled my cloak up for a pillow, laid down on the bench and went to sleep, listening to a discussion in an adjoining room on the merits of my lecture. One man vowed in a broad Irish brogue that he would leave the country if the women voted. Gracious, I thought to myself as I dozed into slumber, what would become of our experiment if one "white male" should desert the flag! In due time I was waked by some gentle Patrick,—perhaps my very critic—tickets bought, valise checked and I transferred to a sleeping-car, where, in a twinkling, I at once "flopped" asleep again, without even taking my bonnet off. At eight, I was roused by an African for this place, where, it being Sunday, the train lies over. So I ordered a fire, washed my face, ate breakfast, undressed regularly, went to bed and slept soundly until one, when I arose, took a sponge bath, had dinner, read all the papers I could procure and now sit down to answer your letter, which was the only one I received at Waterloo. I read it alone at midnight, and, though I am always advising you to write short letters, I did wish this time you had written more at length. You ask if it is not lonely travelling as I do. It is indeed, and I should have enjoyed above all things having Hattie with me. But you see, dearest, that would double my expenses, and as I am so desirous of making money for the household, I must practice economy in some direction. And above all considerations of loneliness and fatigue, I feel that I am doing an immense amount of good in rousing women to thought and inspiring them with new hope and self-respect, that I am making the path smoother for you and Hattie and all the other dear girls. You would laugh to see how everywhere the girls flock round me for a kiss, a curl, an autograph. They all like so much my lecture, "The Coming Girl." I am so glad, dearest, to know that you are happy. Now, improve every hour and every opportunity, and fit yourself for a good teacher or professor, so that you can have money of your own and not be obliged to depend on any man for every breath you draw. The helpless dependence of women generally makes them the narrow, discontented beings so many are. With much love for yourself, kind regards for your chums and pleasant dreams for all in Vassar,

Good night,

Albert Einstein to Hans Albert Einstein

"What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys."

When Albert Einstein first arrived at Princeton University in 1933, he was asked what equipment he needed for his office. "A desk or table, a chair, paper and pencils. Oh yes, and a large wastebasket . . ." he replied. In essence, all the Nobel Prize-winning scientist really needed was his brain. His mind operated at the highest reaches of human capability and his theories of relativity thoroughly revolutionized our understanding of light, matter, and energy.

He was an endearing character who loved his violin and said that he thought and daydreamed in music. He was inherently shy, utterly disinterested in the "trivialities of living," and emotionally he was often indifferent, even with his own family.

In November 1915, Einstein was living in wartime Berlin with his cousin Elsa, the woman who eventually became his second wife. His estranged wife, Mileva, lived in neutral Zurich along with his two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard, "Tete." Following eight years of effort, Einstein spent a final five weeks in the fall of 1915 completing "one of the most beautiful works of [his] life," the theory of general relativity. The theory—supreme thought expressed in just two pages—was the work that launched him into worldwide celebrity and secured his place among the greatest thinkers of all time. Here the thirty-six-year-old Einstein, flush with his recent accomplishment, writes to his eleven-year-old son, Hans Albert.

[Berlin,] 4 November [1915]

My dear Albert,

Yesterday I received your dear letter and was very happy with it. I was already afraid you wouldn't write to me at all any more. You told me when I was in Zurich, that it is awkward for you when I come to Zurich. Therefore I think it is better if we get together in a different place, where nobody will interfere with our comfort. I will in any case urge that each year we spend a whole month together, so that you see that you have a father who is fond of you and who loves you. You can also learn many good and beautiful things from me, something another cannot as easily offer you. What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.

I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don't notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. Also play ringtoss with Tete. That teaches you agility. Also go to my friend Zangger sometimes. He is a dear man.

Be with Tete kissed by your
Regards to Mama.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to John III,
Nelson, Laurence, Winthrop,
and David Rockefeller

" is not too early for you to begin preparing and training your children to bear their share in these responsibilities..."

With commitment, originality, and principle, John D. Rockfeller, Jr.—the son of Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller—made philanthropy his life's work. He distributed more than half a billion dollars for the public good over the course of his career. With utmost respect and admiration for his father's accomplishments, he perceived himself as the steward—not the owner—of the vast Rockefeller fortune. For future generations of the family, wherever money and social conscience were involved, he never missed an opportunity to instruct. "To whom much is given, much is expected" was his motto.

Here, in a typically straightforward and controlled manner, he writes to his five sons, John, Nelson, Laurence, Winthrop, and David, who ranged in age from thirty-seven to twenty-eight years old.

Rockefeller Center
New York
Room 5600
30 Rockefeller Plaza
December 21, 1943

Dear Boys:

From the time Grandfather Rockefeller, a lad of about sixteen, got his first position, his "Ledger A" records the fact that he was making current contributions to worthy causes and needy people although the amounts were sometimes not more than three or five cents. This practice he continued all his life, increasing the amounts thus devoted to the betterment of his fellow men as his own resources increased. One of the earliest recollections of my childhood is Grandfather's reading to us at the table letters of appeal which he had received from individuals or on behalf of causes and discussing with us their merits and what answers should be made. He began to teach us to give and to save regularly when our allowances or the money we earned by doing various family chores amounted to not more than ten cents a week. With this inheritance and early training it was natural that we children should have commenced to give away money for the benefit of other people and causes in our early youth and that our gifts should have increased as Grandfather's did with increasing resources.

After I had worked with Grandfather and his other associates for a few years in developing and organizing his philanthropic gifts on an ever-broadening scale, and it had become apparent to him that I was seeking with what means I then had to be helpful to my fellow men as he had always been, Grandfather gave me, from time to time, increasingly large sums. These gifts he made, as he said in making them, because he felt confident he could count upon my continuing to do for my fellow men as he had done, thus adding to the extent and diversity of the gifts for public purposes which he had been making.

These monies received from Grandfather, I have always regarded as a trust. As he sought to develop in his children the desire and ability to conserve their funds and to use them for the benefit of mankind, so, from an early age, I have sought to do the same with you children and have added, from time to time, to your resources as I have noted the wisdom as well as the generosity with which you have used a substantial portion of them for the betterment of your fellow men.

Some years have passed since I set up trust funds for you. The full income as well as the principal of these funds became available for each of you as you reached 30, and will be available for David when he is 30. I have observed with profound satisfaction that by and large you have not let these larger resources affect the simplicity of your living, although your growing families have of necessity increased your living expenses, but that on the other hand you have drawn upon them in ever larger amounts for the benefit of the worthy causes to which you have individually related yourselves. In other words, you have shown the same sense of stewardship and the same sense of responsibility that Grandfather, by his example, inspired in me. It is, therefore, with confidence and satisfaction that I am planning to share with you still further, from time to time, this trusteeship reposed in me by Grandfather. The wise course you are all pursuing in the use of your resources and your deep and earnest desire to make your lives and your means count as fully as possible for the betterment of humanity would, I know, give Grandfather as great satisfaction as it gives me.

In the meantime, it is not too early for you to begin preparing and training your children to bear their share in these responsibilities. In the hope that it will be helpful to that end, I am setting up a trust for each of your children with the securitites listed in the accompanying memorandum. I have chosen this time to set up these trusts because it is the spirit of Him Whose birth the world is about to celebrate, that inspires all worthy living and generous giving.


Reading Group Guide

For free supplementary materials including information on book groups, suggestions for further reading, chances to win books, phone-in author appearances, and much more, e-mail

1. Though most of the figures in the book are widely known and thoroughly studied, their personal letters often show a side of them overlooked by history books. Were you surprised by the content or tone of any of the letters? Did reading them change your opinion of any of the figures in the book?

2. Do any of the letters remind you of your own communications with family? What values do you feel you have in common with the correspondents?

3. One criticism of the current reliance on email and text messaging is that it’s difficult to convey tone and feeling accurately through the written word. Do you think this applies to the letters in the book, as well? How much emotion are you able to perceive through the writing? Are letters and emails similar or dissimilar in this way?

4. Many of the letters in the book, implicitly or explicitly, give the impression that the recipient is being groomed to continue a legacy of the parent. Whether John Quincy Adams, his father’s pride and joy; Frederick Olmsted, Jr., who was even renamed to take after his father; or John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who was tapped to continue his father’s philanthropic efforts, each was at the receiving end of much solemn advice and some prescriptions for self-improvement and some pretty tall orders for self-improvement and education. How do you imagine such letters were received? Do you find their contents useful, or overly proscriptive? How would you react to receiving such a letter from a parent?

5. Does any of the advice passed from parent to child in these letters strike you as particularly valuable? Do you take away any lessons for your own life?

6. Is there any advice in the letters that, with the benefit of hindsight, seems unwise or even inaccurate? Does any advice in the book strike you as ill conceived?

7. What do you think of the author’s selection of letters? Do you like the figures she chose? Whom would you opt to include or exclude?

8. Several of the letter-writers (Thomas Jefferson, Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Law Olmsted, and N.C Wyeth among them) appear in a number of entries throughout the book, allowing the reader to get to know them through time and possibly to develop more of a relationship with them. Is there one writer who stands out as the one you grew to know the best? Is there anyone you would have liked to see more of?

9. Did any of the pull-out quotes in the text strike you as particularly apt, or moving? Which ones stood out? Were there instances where you would have chosen to highlight a different quote from that letter?

10. Do you find the author’s introductions to each letter helpful? Do you find her point of view objective, or do her comments betray certain favorites among the letter writers?

11. Of the figures in the book, who is the best parent, in your view? Who seems to fall short?

12. In your own life, how do you decide what letters to keep for yourself or for posterity?

13. Some of the letters in this book are timeless, and some firmly set the writer in a particular time and place. Which letters did you think gave timeless wisdom, and which were more specific to circumstance or setting?

14. Which letters were your favorites? Were there any that particularly piqued your interest and made you want to learn more about the person who wrote them?

15. If, a century from now, your letters, emails, or text messages were to be included in a similar collection, what impression would they give the reader? What would you want for them to convey? Are there any particular letters–yours or someone else’s–that you’d like to think will be preserved?

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Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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In this day of email and instant messaging does anyone ever take the time to write a longhand letter? What will future generations have to reference in order to learn more about us, who we were and what we thought? Well, I don't have the answer to those questions but I do know that today we can read the letters of some very distinguished people who did take the time to advise, order or console their children via pen and ink. Yes, the writers of the letters contained in this volume are famous Americans, but they are also very much like all of us when it comes to our offspring. What a privilege it is to be able to read these letters and in that way perhaps know a little more about what was in the writers' hearts and minds. The letters are arranged by theme, from 'Continuity' to 'Rules To Live By,' and each letter is preceded by a brief biographical sketch. We find Albert Einstein writing to Hans Albert Einstein, 'What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys.....I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits......' Sam Houston tells Sam, Jr. of a mother's love: 'Your Ma loves you more than she does any one else, so you should love her, more than any one.' While John Adams sends a note of caution to John Quincy Adams: '...Go and see with how little Wisdom this World is governed.' In moments of discouragement Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote to Georgiana Stowe: 'Why have n't I written? Because, dear Georgie, I am like the dry, dead leafless tree, and have only cold, dead, slumbering buds of hope on the end of stiff, hard, frozen twigs of thought, but no leaves, no blossoms....' 'Posterity' offers a collective portrait of who we were. It's a book that can be picked up and enjoyed a page at a time, and it's one you'll want to refer to again and again.