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12 Famous Letters that Shaped History

In the past weeks, we’ve looked at popular novels written as letters (aka epistolary fiction) and popular movies that use letters as a plot point. Today, we’re getting more real by looking at some of the most famous historical letters that shaped history.

Before the advent of technology, letters were used as a primary means of communication. Over the ages, letters from politicians, religious leaders, scientists, business magnates, and prominent citizens swayed the course of history.

Here are 12 famous historical letters that had a significant impact on the world:


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Letter from Martin Luther to Pope Leo X, 1520

The "Letter from Martin Luther to Pope Leo X" is a letter written by Martin Luther in 1520, in which he lays out his theological objections to the Catholic Church and calls for a reformation of the Church. The letter was addressed to Pope Leo X and is also known as "The Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate."

In this letter, Luther argues that the Church had become corrupt and had strayed from the teachings of the Bible. He criticized the sale of indulgences, the power of the papacy, and the wealth and corruption of the Church. He also called for a reformation of the Church, arguing that the Church should be reformed from within, rather than by outside forces. He also called for the secular authorities to take action to reform the Church, arguing that they had a responsibility to protect the spiritual welfare of their subjects.

Luther's letter was a significant event of the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517 and would lead to the division of Christianity into Protestant and Catholic branches.

Einstein-Szilard Letter, 1939

The letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, known as the Einstein-Szilard Letter, was sent by Albert Einstein and physicist Leo Szilard in 1939, warning President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the potential development of an atomic bomb by the Nazis.

Albert Einstein cowrote the Einstein-Szilart Letter to President Roosevelt in 1939
Albert Einstein cowrote the Einstein-Szilart Letter to President Roosevelt in 1939

In the letter, Einstein and Szilard outlined the potential military applications of nuclear fission, which had been discovered a few years earlier, and the danger that the Germans could be the first to develop a nuclear weapon. They urged the President to authorize research into the development of an atomic bomb by the United States to counter the potential threat posed by the Germans.

The letter was instrumental in convincing President Roosevelt to authorize the creation of the Manhattan Project, which ultimately led to the development of the atomic bomb by the United States during World War II. The letter is considered a key event in the history of nuclear weapons and the Cold War.

Reply to Horace Greeley, 1862

The letter from Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, also known as the "Reply to Horace Greeley," was a letter written by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 in response to a letter from newspaper editor Horace Greeley.

In his letter, Greeley had expressed his frustration with the progress of the Civil War and called on Lincoln to take more aggressive action to abolish slavery and end the war. He also criticized Lincoln for not being more vocal about the abolition of slavery.

In his response, Lincoln defended his actions and explained his position on slavery and the war. He stated that his primary goal was to save the Union, and that he would not take any action that would jeopardize that goal. He also emphasized that he believed slavery was morally wrong and that he was committed to ending it, but that it would have to be done gradually and in a way that would not damage the Union. He also explained that some of his actions were taken to avoid the intervention of foreign countries.

This letter is considered an important statement of Lincoln's views on the Civil War and slavery, and it helped to clarify his position on these issues to the American public.

Letter to Hitler, 1939

The letter from Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, also known as the "Letter to Hitler," was a letter written by Mahatma Gandhi in 1939, addressed to German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Gandhi wrote the letter prior to the outbreak of World War II when Hitler had begun his aggressive military expansion in Europe.

In the letter, Gandhi appealed to Hitler's humanity and urged him to abandon his aggressive policies and ."seek a peaceful resolution to the escalating political tensions in Europe. Gandhi wrote, "We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents." He also told Hitler that he was not fighting for the British Empire but for the rights of small nations and the protection of peace in the world. He also asked him to consider the consequences of war and its impact on humanity.

The letter was never delivered to Hitler, as the German government did not acknowledge it. Nonetheless, it is considered an important document in the history of nonviolent resistance and an early example of Gandhi's philosophy of Satyagraha, which is the resistance to tyranny through mass civil disobedience.

Letter to Christina, 1615

The letter from Galileo Galilei to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, also known as the "Letter to Christina," was a letter written by Galileo Galilei in 1615. The letter was addressed to Christina of Lorraine, who was the Grand Duchess of Tuscany and the mother of Cosimo II de' Medici.

In the letter, Galileo defended his scientific views, which were based on the works of Copernicus, and stated that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun. At the time, Galileo's views were considered heretical by the Catholic Church, as they conflicted with the Church's traditional belief that the Earth was the center of the universe.

Galileo wrote the letter to explain his views on the relationship between science and faith, and to clarify that his scientific discoveries did not contradict the teachings of the Church. He argued that the Bible should not be interpreted literally when it comes to scientific matters and should be understood in the context of the time it was written. He also emphasized that his discoveries were not intended to challenge the authority of the Church but to improve human understanding of the natural world.

The letter is considered an important document in the history of science and the relationship between science and religion.

The Letter from Paul to the Romans, circa 57

The letter from Paul to the Romans, also known as the Epistle to the Romans, is a letter written by the Apostle Paul around AD 57. It is considered one of the most important texts in the New Testament of the Bible.

The letter is addressed to the Christian community in Rome, and it covers a wide range of topics, including the nature of God, the role of faith in salvation, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the Christian community, and Paul's own mission to spread the message of Christianity. It also provides a deeper understanding of God's righteousness and how it relates to humanity.

Overall, it is considered one of the most important texts for understanding the theology of the Christian faith.

The Declaration of Independence, 1776

The Declaration of Independence is a document that the Continental Congress adopted on July 4, 1776, which announced that the thirteen American colonies, then at war with Great Britain, were no longer a part of the British Empire.

The Declaration of Independence was written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, who was assisted by a committee of five men that included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson.

The Declaration of Independence sets forth the principles that the colonies believed were fundamental rights of all mankind, and that their struggle for freedom was a part of the larger struggle for liberty throughout the world. The document also lists the grievances against King George III and the British government that the colonies believed justified their separation from Britain.

The Declaration of Independence established the United States of America as a new nation and is considered one of the most important documents in American history.

Open Letter from Malala, 2012

The letter from Malala Yousafzai to the Taliban, also known as the "Open Letter from Malala," was a letter written by Malala Yousafzai in 2012. Malala is a young girl from Pakistan who became a global advocate for girls' education after surviving an assassination attempt by the Taliban in 2012 when she was only 15.

In the letter, Malala addressed the Taliban directly and condemned the group's actions, specifically its attack on her and its opposition to girls' education. She wrote, "I am not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorists group... I speak not for myself, but so those without a voice can be heard."

She also wrote that she had a dream of education for every child and that education is the right of every human being and it should not be denied on the basis of gender or any other reason. She also emphasized that the Taliban's actions were not only unjust and inhumane but also against the teachings of Islam.

The letter is considered an important statement of Malala's views on education and human rights, and it helped raise awareness of her cause and the importance of education for girls worldwide. It also shows the power of a young person's voice in advocating for change.

The Letter from Sigmund Freud to Carl Jung, 1913

The letter from Sigmund Freud to Carl Jung in 1913 is a letter that Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, wrote to Carl Jung, one of his closest followers and a prominent psychoanalyst in his own right. The letter was written in 1913 when their relationship and professional collaboration began to deteriorate.

In the letter, Freud expresses his disappointment and frustration with Jung's growing independence and deviation from his theories. He wrote about his disappointment in Jung's latest publication, "Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido" (Transformations and Symbols of the Libido), which Freud considered a departure from psychoanalysis and the ideas they had developed together. He also criticized Jung's use of the concept of "libido" and his incorporation of spiritual and religious elements into psychoanalysis.

The letter also reflects Freud's disappointment in Jung's increasing focus on the collective unconscious, which Freud considered as a deviation from the psychoanalytic focus on the individual psyche. The letter also contains Freud's concerns about the future of psychoanalysis as a discipline and his fears that Jung's departure from his theories would lead to the fragmentation of the psychoanalytic movement.

The letter is considered an important historical document in the history of psychoanalysis, as it reflects the growing tensions and differences between Freud and Jung, which eventually led to a break in their relationship and professional collaboration.

The Letter of Rosa Parks, 1955

The letter of Rosa Parks refers to a letter that Rosa Parks wrote in 1955, a year after her historic act of civil disobedience on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus.

In the letter, Parks reflects on the events leading up to her arrest and the boycott that followed, and describes the support she received from the African American community and the Civil Rights Movement. She also speaks about her own thoughts and feelings during the boycott and the impact it had on her life.

The letter is considered an important historical document because it offers insight into Parks' personal perspective on the boycott and the Civil Rights Movement.

The Cuban Missile Crisis Letter, 1962

The Cuban Missile Crisis Letter is a letter that United States President John F. Kennedy sent to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on October 26, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The letter was sent in response to Khrushchev's earlier letter in which he had proposed a peaceful solution to the crisis. In his letter, Kennedy rejected Khrushchev's proposal and demanded that the Soviet Union remove its missiles from Cuba and dismantle the missile bases there. Kennedy also made it clear that the U.S. would not tolerate the presence of these missile bases and would take whatever action was necessary to protect its security.

The letter was a crucial moment in the crisis as it set out the U.S. position on the issue clearly and firmly.

The Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963

The Letter from Birmingham Jail is an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by Martin Luther King Jr. while imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, for his participation in nonviolent protests against racial segregation and discrimination.

In the letter, King responds to a statement by eight white Alabama clergymen who had criticized him and the civil rights movement for being "unwise and untimely."King defended the actions of the civil rights movement, arguing that the black community had exhausted all other means of gaining equal rights and that direct action was necessary. He also criticized the white moderates, who he believed were more of an obstacle to progress than the Ku Klux Klan.

The letter is considered a classic of American literature and an important document in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. King's arguments in the letter about the importance of nonviolent protest and the moral justification for civil disobedience have been widely discussed and studied. He also wrote about the importance of unity and racial equality, and the need for people to take responsibility for their own freedom. It's a powerful and moving letter that has had a lasting impact on American society.

Read More Letters

Did this list of historical letters spark your interest? Continue your journey by checking out 100 Letters That Changed the World by Colin Slater.

Looking for more lighthearted letters? Then check out Fiction Letters!

A Fiction Letters series is great fiction sent to you as eight personalized physical letters through the mail over two months. Four great series of letters are available, like the Whistleblower, where your fictitious friend Trevor brings you along on his quest to take down an evil pharmaceutical company.

Whether you love historical letters or fictional letters, check back soon for more letter-mania!

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