5 Letters That Changed the World

iStock.com/Eerik
iStock.com/Eerik

Emails may take up the bulk of our correspondence these days, but there was a time when a handwritten letter carried a considerable amount of weight—far more than the paper it was composed on. Take a look at five letters that had a demonstrable and powerful effect on world history.

1. The letter that prompted Abraham Lincoln to grow a beard.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the Republican candidate for president. He was also clean-shaven, a look in stark contrast to the images and portrayals of a fully-bearded president that would endure well past his presidency. Growing a beard was a suggestion famously put forth by an 11-year-old girl named Grace Bedell, who offered some unsolicited campaign advice. In her letter to Lincoln that year, she stated that his face, which she described as “so thin,” would benefit from a beard because “all the ladies like whiskers.”

Lincoln wrote her back just days later and wondered if a beard wouldn’t seem like a “piece of silly affectation” since he had never grown one before. Despite the apprehension, Lincoln did grow a beard—perhaps the most famous one in American history. On the way to his 1861 inauguration, he arranged to make a stop in Bedell’s hometown of Westfield, New York, to let her know he had taken her advice to heart.

2. The letter from Albert Einstein that started the Atomic Age.

It would have been impossible for Albert Einstein to understand the gravity of his words as he signed a letter dated August 2, 1939, and later remitted to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In it, he alerted the president to work being conducted by scientists such as Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard that may one day soon result in a “nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium.” The consequences of such an achievement, Einstein wrote, would be “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.”

Einstein’s motivation was to communicate the potential of a superweapon to the United States government—one that could conceivably be developed by Germany first if the U.S. did not act. When Roosevelt received the letter, he told his military advisor, General Edwin Watson, to take action.

That wasn’t the only correspondence between Szilard and Roosevelt. Upon receipt of the initial letter, Roosevelt also promised to fund Szilard’s research into nuclear fission. When those funds were late in coming, Szilard wrote the president again and threatened to publish a paper he'd written that detailed some of the information needed to make a nuclear weapon—unless Roosevelt made good on his promise. Szilard got his wish, though he later expressed regret at the wheels he had put into motion, fearing a nuclear war would be catastrophic.

Collectively, the letters set into motion a chain of events leading to the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb, which was deployed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and helped bring an end to World War II.

3. The letter from George Washington that won the American Revolution.

George Washington had a problem. The Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army was in the midst of a struggle that saw the American colonies trying to separate themselves from Great Britain. It wasn’t going well: The British Army had captured the New York City port and was advancing every day. Washington believed he could benefit from the assistance of a spy in the city to report on what was going on behind enemy lines. When he failed to rouse any volunteers beyond an inexperienced young man named Nathan Hale—who was captured and hanged in just under two weeks—Washington wrote a letter to a proven operative named Nathaniel Sackett.

Washington offered Sackett $50 a month to develop a network of spies and a system of espionage that could gather intelligence. Although Sackett didn’t make much progress, another operative, Benjamin Tallmadge, did. His Culper Spy Ring successfully gathered information about British troop movement and plans and had it delivered to Washington. British plans were continually breached, and General Cornwallis surrendered in 1781.

4. The letter from a mother that helped give women the right to vote.

In 1920, the fate of women’s suffrage rested in the hands of a man who was publicly opposed to the movement. On August 18 of that year, Tennessee House Representative Harry Thomas Burn cast the deciding vote on whether his state would ratify the 19th Amendment. Tennessee became the 36th state to do so, cementing the three-fourths of states needed in order to grant women the right to vote. His vote in favor was unexpected, as Burn was wearing the red rose that was the symbol of anti-suffragists. Just that morning a local newspaper had run an ad imploring people to “wear a red rose” to help defeat the amendment, “the most important issue that has confronted the South since the Civil War.”

When the amendment finally came up for a vote after prolonged discussion, Burn surprised observers by voting in favor of it. The reason? In his jacket pocket was a letter from his mother, Febb Ensminger Burn, that urged him to side with the cause of women’s suffrage. “Don’t forget to be a good boy,” she admonished. Burn later said that “a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow.”

5. The letter that influenced the Civil Rights Movement.

When civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 12, 1963 for participating in a march without a permit, he did not use the time to sit idle. Instead, King used whatever materials he could—including the margins of newspapers and paper provided by his lawyer—and spent the week he was locked up formulating an eloquent and measured response to criticism from the local clergy that protests weren’t the answer. By April 16, he had composed what would become known as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a lengthy rebuttal [PDF] that reinforced the need for public demonstrations against segregation.

In the letter, King argued passionately against the idea of waiting patiently for social change to be enacted. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote. The piece, which was later published in The Atlantic as well as King’s own book, 1964’s Why We Can’t Wait, was viewed as a rallying cry for activism during a crucial period in history and as documentation of the movement itself.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.