Writing Letters

People have been writing letters since written language began. Letters are written for all kinds of reasons. Letters are written to persuade, to praise, to condemn. In them we express ideas, describe events, travels, people, and love. In the days before typewriters, computers, phones, e-mail, text messages and other modern communication technology, if people weren’t close enough to speak face to face they needed to write. All writing took place by hand. In those days it was more important to write legibly than it was to spell well or punctuate. The most important factor in writing was making your message understood. That meant handwriting needed to be neat and legible. Schools taught handwriting as a course called Penmanship. In order to be able to get a good job, or to get ahead in any profession, you had to write neatly and well. If you were able to become an important person, you would have a secretary (almost always a man) who would write for you. One of the reasons Ebenezer D. Bassett was so successful was the fact that his handwriting was clear and neat. He was able to use words to communicate clearly and he wrote well.

Making and keeping copies of important documents has always been necessary. Only very special government documents or proclamations were copied on a printing press. Therefore, any copies, as well as the original document, had to be handwritten. Good handwriting was a must. Even today with all of the electronic communication methods we have available, a handwritten note is often the most precious communication we can receive especially if that note is expressing thanks, sympathy, congratulations, or love.

Writing Activity

Provided here are two examples of letters. One was written to congratulate Ebenezer D. Bassett on his appointment as minister to Haiti. It was written by the great Frederick Douglass in his own hand. Douglass was the most famous black American of the period. He had a secretary to write his letters, but he chose to congratulate Ebenezer D. Bassett in his own handwriting. This was a tremendous compliment; however, Douglass’s handwriting is hard to read so there is a printed copy of the letter as well. The second letter is from Abraham Lincoln to the headmaster of his son’s school. Lincoln is considered the greatest American letter and speech writer. He writes this letter describing what his hopes and expectations are for his son’s education. Like every parent, Lincoln wants the best education possible for his son. He wants his son to have the educational opportunities that he never had. Lincoln probably attended less than a year of formal schooling and was largely self-taught. Ebenezer D. Bassett was successful because he was able to pursue his education freely in Derby, CT. This was remarkable at a time when education was the prerogative of the wealthy or a chosen few. One of the goals of this project is to help students understand the value of education, that education opens doors and fulfills dreams. Read the letter. Think about what education means and what Lincoln wants his son to learn.

Your Task

Address a letter to your teacher and explain what you want to learn and what you hope to gain from your educational experiences. Describe what your goals and dreams are and how you plan to use your education to achieve them. Remember, all good letters contain a date, a salutation, and a closing. All good letters contain details and explain clearly to the reader the ideas and thoughts the writer wants a reader to understand. Be sure to write a very good letter.