Lately, while I’ve been rummaging about files of then-famous 19th-century politicians, I’ve been surprised by the amount of mail they get from random people. There seems to be nothing holding John Q.Public back from tossing off a note to a septuagenarian former President asking for a favor, an opinion, or, in some cases, a fight: come give a lecture in Newark! Give me an autograph! What’s your take on contract law? You’re wrong about China! etc etc
I suppose the source of this surprise is my own understanding of how relations with the powerful work. I’d always figured that it was only lunatics, or schoolchildren, who wrote such letters. And perhaps that’s true for the nineteenth century as well, but the sheer number of the letters I’ve been finding seems to indicate that there’s something else going on here.
Take, for example, the following letter written by Marcus Spring to John Quincy Adams, dated December 17, 1841:*
I perceive by your letter in a late Boston paper that you quote from the Declaration of Independence the passage ‘all men are created equal, & are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights — among which are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’ — to sustain your view of the British war against China —
Will you permit a humble individual (unknown to you, but by whom your public career has been watched with much interest and your opinions highly respected) to ask you to point out the want of analogy (if there be any) so far as any moral principle is involved, between the case of [strike out] the Government of[/strike out] Great Britain forcibly entering upon the territory of the Chinese, to compel them to an intercourse more congenial to British notions of honor and Christian courtesy, and the case I suppose below — viz
An aristocratic family choose to withdraw from all intercourse with the rest of the world and to live within themselves — taking care not to trespass upon the premises of their neighbors — another family, justly regarding this mode of life as selfish, and unchristian, enters their home [door?] and commences inflicting chastisement upon the aristocrats for their haughty and unchristian demeanor Though the selfish family might be flogged into more courteous manners towards their neighbors, does it not strike you that the chastisement supposed would be a violation of their inalienable right to pursue their happiness in their own way so long as they abstained from overt acts to injure their neighbors? I can not doubt your affirmation answer to this last question — And if that is any difference in principle in the two cases I will be sincerely obliged by your dropping me a line to point it out; as I cannot perceive any —
I cannot deny myself the pleasure of expressing to you my admiration of your services in the holy cause of human rights, and my ardent wishes that you may long be spared by Providence to be an honored & efficient instrument in extending the blessings of impartial liberty to every inhabitant of our favored land–
very respectfully & truly
your friend & well wisher
52 Paine St
Or again, this one from James Risk, resident of New Orleans, also to Adams, dated January 7, 1842:*
I address you these few lines for the purpose of asking a favor; and, although a perfect stranger to you, I feel confident you will grant it, provided you can find time, apart from your various and arduous public duties.
I am, Sir, making a collection of autographs of distinguished public persons, and, am peculiarly desirous of being in possession of yours, for various reasons — Few men, sir, in the world’s history, I think, have been so long, prominently and usefully in public life, and, in their old age, enjoy so large a share of the confidence, esteem, veneration and respect as their countrymen, as you do…
These are, so far that I’ve seen, fairly typical, both for Adams and others. They are neither from lunatics, nor schoolchildren (though I’d wager that Risk is on the young side). And that’s just for conversational letters, or small requests — there are hundreds of letters asking for help with pensions, appointments to government officers, requests for lectures, etc.
And you want to know the crazy thing? Sometimes Adams wrote them back. (Not to Risk or Spring, alas, but others not so different).
Now, I have to say, my surprise at finding such things is not wholly a product of my 21st century bias. It’s also a product of my training. You see, the only other time I’ve ever encountered letters like this — from nobodies, to somebodies — is in the context of slaves (or recently ex-slaves) writing to Abraham Lincoln, as part of the selected documents published by the Freedmen & Southern Society Project.
You can see an example of what I mean here.
The Freedmen Project folks discuss this kind of communication, flowing from bottom right on up, as the products of a unique and revolutionary moment.**
Only in the upheaval of accustomed routine can the lower orders give voice to the assumptions that guide their world as it is and as they wish it to be. … Under the tutelage of unprecedented events, ordinary men and women become extraordinarily perceptive and articulate, seizing the moment to challenge the assumptions of the old regime and proclaim a new social order.”
I don’t think that’s quite right, though.
Granted, a slave writing to the President in the middle of a war is a unique situation calling for a unique set of rationales and conditions to explain it. And granted, there are certainly larger differences in class and status at work in the case of a slave writing Lincoln, and Marcus Spring of 52 Paine Street writing Adams (though so far as I can tell, neither Risk nor Spring were part of the ruling elite).
But I think these letters are evidence of something we’ve lost; that sense of equality De Tocqueville claimed to have observed, and then struggled to explain. A closer relationship between governors and governed, even absent a revolutionary moment. (Or perhaps what’s going on here is that the revolutionary moment was not over yet).
Now, there are any number of reasons why things aren’t this way today. There are far more people, for one. Our government is much more complex, and its civil service much more developed — writing a Congressman is probably not the best way to resolve a dispute.
And in some ways, things haven’t changed. Congresspeople still do “constituent service,” which is similar in its ends as much of mail Adams got.
But I’m struck by how un-level the playing field is, now. People might have a poor opinion of their leaders — but they can’t call them up to tell them so. Not directly, anyway. You need to organize first. Maybe the desire for that kind of one-to-one encounter of equals is what’s behind the oft-cited desire of voters to elect someone they could have a beer with? I dunno. But reading dead folks’ mail sure is interesting.
*Adams Papers Microfilm (Boston, MA: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1954-1959), Series III, Reel 520.
** Berlin, et al., Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. x.