Whether it's due to their rhetorical power or the information they contain, some letters can change the way their recipient thinks about everything. But while such messages can mean the beginning and end of relationships, there are a select few throughout history with Earth-shattering consequences for mare people than the reader.
Whether the people who sent them were talking to the right people or the wrong people, they changed the world itself by not letting their feelings go unvoiced.
A little girl's letter to Abraham Lincoln
On Oct. 15, 1860, 11-year-old Grace Bedell wrote to Abraham Lincoln and suggested he grow a beard because it would make his face look fuller and look more appealing to women, who would convince their husbands to vote for him and thus make him a more viable candidate.
Although the Library of Congress noted that Lincoln was concerned this decision would come off as "a piece of silly affectation," he nonetheless adopted his signature beard. It's impossible to know whether this helped win him the election, but it cemented his image in the popular consciousness for centuries to come.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter From Birmingham Jail
After Martin Luther King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, for sit-ins and marches protesting segregation and the need for civil rights, he read a newspaper article in which several clergymen called his demonstrations "unwise and ill-timed."In a response obtained by The Bill Of Rights Institute, he wrote a letter arguing eloquently and passionately that passively waiting for injustice to end ensures it never does.
In his words, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was "well timed," according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation."
Still inspirational decades later
His words inspired many to march on Washington D.C. with him and hear him deliver his "I Have A Dream" speech.
All of these famous moments were examples of the pressure his supporters were able to effect that ultimately inspired what would turn out to be the Civil Rights Act.
The letter that stopped the gunpowder treason plot
In 1605, Guy Fawkes and a group of co-conspirators planned to destroy the British government by blowing up the House of Lords on November 5, while King James I, his top ministers, and the Members of Parliament were inside. And the only reason this didn't happen was an anonymous letter sent to a lord who had the sympathies of one of the men involved.
According to the National Archives, a mysterious figure brought the letter to the footman of Lord Monteagle. It warned him not to attend the State Opening of Parliament, and after he showed it to the Privy Council, Fawkes was discovered underneath the House with 36 barrels of gunpowder and apprehended.
Henry VIII's love letters to Anne Boleyn
According to the Library of Congress, Henry VIII wrote a series of letters romancing Anne Boleyn and expressing his desire to be with her. There were 17 in all, and the last few of them were sent in 1528.
By then, Henry VIII had long decided that he would rather pursue Boleyn than stay married to Catherine of Aragorn. As he stated in his sign-off in the first letter, "written with the hand of him who wishes he were yours."
Consequences etched into England itself
Pursuing the subsequent divorce from Catherine would lead to a schism between him — and, by extension England — and the Roman Catholic Church and the formation of the Church of England.
And his subsequent marriage to Boleyn also led to the birth of Queen Elizabeth I, who eventually led England through a massive naval war with the Spanish Armada.
The first known letter in recorded history
According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the first known letter was written by Queen Atossa of Persia in 500 BCE. Unfortunately, the actual text of this letter has not survived, so it's unclear what it was actually about, but the fact that she wrote it at all is significant in and of itself.
Because whether she was expressing love, complaining about life's hardships, or placing a mundane order, Atossa set the standard for a simple way to communicate one's thoughts.
Winston Churchill's terse reply to Eliot Crawshaw-Williams
As The Guardian reported, Winston Churchill's assistant secretary Eliot Crawshaw-Williams wrote him on June 1927, 1940, and urged him to seek "the best peace terms possible" with Germany rather than to continue fighting World War II. In response, Churchill wrote, "I am ashamed of you for writing such a letter. I return it to you – to burn & forget."
Given the United Kingdom's significance as an Allied power, it's likely that the war would have gone much worse for the Allies and may not even have been winnable at all if Crawshaw-Williams was able to convince Churchill.
Charles Darwin's 729th letter to John Dalton Hooker
Although the public at large had their scientific understanding of the world and its many species challenged by Charles Darwin's seminal book On The Origin Of Species, it was through a letter to his friend and fellow scientist John Dalton Hooker that he first expressed his thoughts on the reality of evolution.
As this letter revealed, Darwin's thorough studies of the observable changes of species and the centuries of advancements in evolutionary biology that followed began with a simple idea. In Darwin's words, "I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable."
The letters of Saint Paul
As Wayne A. Meeks from Yale University explained to PBS, Saint Paul's letters (or epistles) sent throughout the known world are such an influential part of the New Testament that it's easy to forget he would have seen them as closer to ordinary letters than parts of a future sacred text.
In his epistles, Paul aimed to resolve disputes among early Christians and expand the scope of both theological study and ethical considerations for the pioneers of what would become the world's most-followed religion. His letters still inform pastoral tradition millennia after he wrote them.
Jimmy Carter's contribution to the Voyager 1 "gold record"
According to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, beloved astronomer Carl Sagan spearheaded a project during the '70s that marks the most sophisticated attempt to contact extraterrestrial life in human history.
This took the form of playable records made of gold that contained sounds and images of Earth's natural processes, spoken greetings in various languages, and significant pieces of music throughout history. They were sent aboard multiple Voyager probes and were enclosed with a letter by then-President Jimmy Carter explaining the record's contents and offering a brief, optimistic summary of Earth's political structure.
Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein write to President Roosevelt
According to the American Museum of Natural History, a physicist named Leo Szilard heard of three scientists in Berlin successfully splitting the uranium atom in 1938, which he learned released sufficiently powerful energy to fuel what is now recognized as nuclear weapons.
Horrified by the potential of such destructive power in the hands of the German military during World War II, Szilard urged Albert Einstein to write a letter to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939.
Einstein's intent was to warn Roosevelt of the potentially catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons. And the warning was taken to heart, but perhaps not in the intended way. It inspired American research into atomic energy, which would then lead to the development of the world-changing Manhattan Project and America's own nuclear weapons.
According to Time, the consequences this would have by the end of the war made him regret sending the letter in the first place, especially since the Germans weren't as close as he or Szilard thought. As he said, "I would never have lifted a finger."
Lincoln's letter to newspaper editor Albert G. Hodges
While historians can point to a wide variety of factors that won the Civil War for the Union, Lincoln's letters explaining why the war had to be seen through shored up enough morale in northern states to ensure the cause wasn't widely abandoned.
As Teaching American History relayed, the most famous of these letters saw Lincoln write, "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." And when prompted to defend the legality of his war measures, Lincoln wrote, "I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution, through the preservation of the nation."
The Zimmerman Telegram
According to the National Archives, German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann sent an encrypted telegram to the minister to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt. In it, he expressed Germany's willingness to offer American territory to Mexico in exchange for their allegiance during World War I.
After British cryptographers intercepted this message, the fallout for German sentiment in the United States was so severely impacted that the nation declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. This helped tip the scales against Germany enough to make their defeat imminent.
John Alexander's simple but historic letter from 1840
According to The London Letters, someone named John Alexander wrote a brief, humorous letter to a friend showing off the revolutionary new postage stamp bearing Queen Victoria's face called a "Penny Black" on May 5th, 1840. In Alexander's words, "What a pity that they should make Victoria gummy, like an old woman without teeth! As I am!"
But while the message isn't exactly historically significant, the medium by which it was conveyed was. Because Rowland Hill's invention of this flat-rate postage made the postal system affordable to everyone in England rather than just the richest elites and inspired other countries to let their people communicate as much as they wanted.
The Balfour Declaration
According to the History Channel, the Balfour Declaration was a letter that British foreign minister Arthur Balfour sent to Lionel Walter Rothschild stating the Crown's intent regarding "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" overseen by the British government after World War I.
Although Palestinians had thought their support against the Ottoman Empire would compel the British government to grant them statehood, this declaration instead revealed the truth was more complicated. In many ways, the roots of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be traced back to the Balfour Declaration.
Galileo Galilei's letter to The Grand Duchess of Tuscany
According to Columbia University's Core Curriculum platform, Galileo had intended to gain support for his Heliocentric theories about the universe among the influential Medici family by writing Christina Lorraine, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, who was married to a Medici.
In his long essay, Galileo argued that stating the planets revolved around the Sun was not a contradiction of the Bible but rather the Catholic Church's narrow interpretation thereof. Although this didn't work and Galileo was forced to recant, the letter nonetheless resonated beyond his time into future, more secular societies.
The Olive Branch Petition
Written by John Dickinson and ratified by the Second Continental Congress, The Olive Branch Petition was a direct appeal to King George III to address the taxation and representation grievances of American colonists and avoid the Revolutionary War.
According to the History Channel, the king refused even to read this petition, which then inspired Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence, the foundational philosophical document of the American Revolution and the United States at large.
Christopher Columbus's letter to Luis de Santángel
According to the New York Public Library, Christopher Columbus gleefully wrote to his friend and supporter, Luis de Santángel, that he had successfully landed in an undiscovered part of Asia. Although this land would later be understood as the New World, this letter still had a monumental effect on the colonization to come.
Not only was this due to the abundant natural resources Columbus described, but also due to the fact that he mistakenly believed he had taken possession of the islands he found unopposed. This would inspire Spanish forces to follow his trail, which carried disastrous results for various indigenous nations.
The "Groan Of The Britons"
The Atlantic reported ancient Britons living under Roman conquest sent a message to Rome asking for help in quelling various invasion attempts. But the lack of a response would prove to be significant in its own right because it led the Britons to seek help from German mercenaries instead.
As Science explained, what followed was a long-term period of German settlement in what is now the United Kingdom that led to the early development of the English language. If the Romans had sufficiently responded, people in England would possibly speak some hybrid of Celtic and Latin today.
An American girl's letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov
Amid a climate where Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech about the Soviet Union and Soviet Premiere Yuri Andropov's similarly inflammatory response had just happened, 10-year-old Samantha Smith wrote a letter to the USSR leader in 1982. In it, she bluntly said, "I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country."
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Andropov invited Smith to the USSR in the following year. After making friends with Soviet children and visiting the nation's cultural landmarks, Smith said, "Some people have the wrong impression about the Soviets. [They] want peace like I do." Although Smith didn't exactly end the Cold War, her story resonated enough with people to help foster favorable conditions for its peaceful resolution.
Major Sullivan Ballou's Last Letter
According to the National Park Service, Union Major Sullivan Ballou's solemn and contemplative letter to his wife, Sarah, would serve as his final statement before he met his end at the Battle of Bull Run, the first of the American Civil War. Although it did not change the course of the war, it proved more prescient of how it would go than the letters from his more optimistic brothers-in-arms.
As Ballou wrote, "Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again. As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father's love and care."
James Schlesinger's destructive response to Jim Press
The Guardian reported that Jimmy Carter's chief science advisor Frank Press sent the president a comprehensive memo in 1977 that rigorously explained the link between fossil fuel combustion and CO2 presence in the atmosphere and the destructive climate effects.
However, Carter instead seemed to follow the advice of his Secretary of Energy, James Schlesinger, who wrote, "My view is that the policy implications of this issue are still too uncertain to warrant Presidential involvement and policy initiatives." If he hadn't, an effort to seriously address climate change could have happened decades earlier.
The McMahon–Hussein Correspondence
As relayed by the Economic Cooperation Foundation, these were a series of letters between the British High Commissioner of Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, and Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca. In them, the two men brokered an agreement in which the British government would allow Arab nations to form an independent caliphate in exchange for military support against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
These letters are significant not only for the impact they had on Britain's victory in that war but also in the Middle Eastern consequences of how they were contradicted by the Balfour Declaration a year later.
Pliny the Younger's letter to Emperor Trajan
In 112, Roman Governor Pliny the Younger wrote Emperor Trajan about a dilemma he faced in what is now Turkey regarding the persecution of Christians. It's worth noting that this letter marks the first time the Romans made the distinction between Christianity and Judaism.
And as PBS outlined, Trajan's response was that Pliny was right to execute confirmed Christians but should not seek them out for prosecution. This letter would set a precedent within the Roman Empire for the mass persecution of Christians that would follow in the next two centuries.
Ruby Bates' Letter to Earl Streetman
As reproduced by Kwando Mbiassi Kinshasa in the book The Man From Scottsboro, Ruby Bates wrote a letter to her boyfriend unequivocally recanting her previous accusation that the nine young men convicted in the "Scottsboro Boys Trial" had violated her.
However, the History Channel explained that even with this letter and her further testimony, multiple juries nonetheless returned guilty verdicts. The U.S. Supreme Court would later overturn some of these convictions and ruled against the practice of selecting all-white juries.
The Zinoviev Letter
The Guardian reported Soviet politician Grigori Zinoviev supposedly wrote British communists to pressure "sympathetic" individuals in the Labour Party to accept a U.K.-Russia treaty and to spread "agitation propaganda" within the British armed forces. This letter cost the Labour Party a national election in 1924, but that's not what makes it so significant.
Instead, it's significant because it turned into one of the biggest scandals in MI6 history because the intelligence organization completely fabricated the letter as a means of manipulating the election against a likely Labour Party victory.
Jimmy Carter's letter to Ayatollah Khomeini
On November 6, 1979, President Jimmy Carter wrote a letter to the then-recent Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini in his first of many attempts to negotiate for the release of the 52 American hostages who were detained in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
However, PBS reported that while these hostages were eventually released, that didn't happen until after Carter's re-election bid. And while it's unclear whether this long hostage crisis was the final nail that cost him the election, it's possible that America would have been significantly different if this release had happened during the year he sent this letter.
Catherine Howard's "love letter" to Thomas Culpeper
While Catherine Howard was married to Henry VIII, she wrote a letter to a man named Thomas Culpeper that contains the passage, "When I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart to die, to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company."
According to the National Archives, this was often considered a scandalous love letter. Yet historians are now more likely to consider it an attempt to appease Culpeper, who was blackmailing her by threatening to reveal her past romantic partners to the king. In either case, its discovery led to the execution of Howard, Culpeper, and a past partner named Francis Dereham.