I have long been intrigued by the letters people write to U.S. presidents.  The National Archives and National Geographic Society published a volume in 2005 that presents 87 letters written to presidents all the way from George Washington to Bill Clinton entitled Dear Mr. President: Letters to the Oval Office.  The letters are arranged topically and include missives from young children as well as letters from well-known personalities — some of whom were well-known at the time they wrote the letter (e.g., John Steinbeck, who wrote to LBJ; Elvis Presley, who wrote to Nixon) and others who later became famous (e.g., Fidel Castro, who wrote to FDR).  Letters from children are always of interest, and a 2004 article in NARA’s Prologue magazine highlights these letters.  (See also the activity page created by the Smithsonian.)  Last year on his blog, current Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, wrote about the letters children created while participating in a sleepover at the National Archives — and how they seemed to recognize the gravity of the situation and reflected carefully before crafting their letters.  Many of the letters written to earlier presidents are housed at the Library of Congress, while those from Hebert Hoover through Barack Obama are held by the National Archives and Records Administration within the presidential library system.

In the foreword to this book, Allen Weinstein (who was then Archivist of the United States) wrote:

“Letters may be mundane, or memorable, personal accounts of our lives at a moment in time.  They become noteworthy in a different way when written to public figures, especially Presidents of the United States.  Without question, it requires special motivation to sit down and write: ‘Dear Mr. President.’  This salutation means we have something important to say, and we expect the most powerful person on earth to pay attention to our concerns” (12).

In the introduction, Brian Williams recounts his work in 1979 as an intern in the Office of Presidential Correspondence.  He himself wrote a letter to LBJ in 1966, and now he was on the receiving end:

“I was opening someone’s precious letter to the President.  Some sent along pictures.  Some expressed their dreams, some spewed their anger . . . all of them wrote to the President empowered by a sacred right of citizenship as old as the Republic itself” (17).

The form of correspondence to presidents has changed over the years — from longhand cursive letters delivered by horse and rider to cables and telegrams to typed letters to faxes to email.  Now in February, NBC News challenged people to communicate with President Trump via Twitter:

A lot remains to be evaluated about the impacts of these later forms of communication with presidents, especially email and tweets.  I just hope the ease with which these missives can be sent doesn’t negate the needed reflection and gravity.  I hope the discourse continues to reflect the efforts of people to exercise their rights of citizenship — and in the process creates noteworthy evidence of the office of the presidency and its impact on the American people.  We owe that to the historians of the next generation.

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