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A letter to Clara Barton, written in precise cursive penmanship. The letter is transcribed in the text below.
Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Children’s Voices in the Library of Congress: Letters to Notable Americans

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This post was written by Dianne Choie, Educational Programs Specialist at the Library of Congress.

You might be aware that well-known people like politicians and artists receive a lot of mail from people who are fans or are writing with questions. Those letter-writers have always included kids, too. The Manuscript Reading Room at the Library of Congress holds letters sent and received by many prominent Americans. There, registered researchers can study the personal papers of 23 United States presidents, civil rights leaders including Frederick Douglass, writers including Walt Whitman, and many more. When we refer to “personal papers,” that includes things like diaries, notes, collected items like programs or maps, and the aforementioned written correspondence.

Read on for a small sample of the things that children have written to some well-known, distinguished Americans over time. Sometimes we also have access to the responses!

Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President

One of the most famous letters from a child in American history is one written in 1860 from eleven-year-old Grace Bedell to then-Representative Abraham Lincoln, who was running for president at the time. Her suggestion that he grow a beard may have helped him win the election, and it certainly added to the iconic look that we know today. Below is a typewritten copy of Grace’s letter.

Typewritten letter, marked "COPY" on the front, with blue typeface and a "Library of Congress" stamp with an eagle logo
Grace Bedell to Abraham Lincoln, October 18, 1860. Copy in the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Abraham Lincoln Papers.

The letter reads:

Westfield, Chatauque Co N Y
Oct 18-1860

Hon A B Lincoln

Dear Sir

My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin’s. I am a little girl only eleven years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brother’s and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband’s to vote for you and then you would be President. My father is a going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you to but I will try and get everyone to vote for you that I can. I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty I have got a little baby sister she is nine weeks old and is just as cunning as can be. When you direct your letter direct to Grace Bedell Westfield Chatauque County New York

I must not write any more answer this letter right off Good bye

Grace Bedell.

Read the letter out loud with the young people in your life and discuss some of the following questions.

  • Would Grace’s letter have convinced you to grow a beard, if you were Lincoln?
  • Do you think the beard helped him to be elected as president of the United States? Why or why not?
  • What would you say to the president, and how would you communicate? Handwritten letter, typed email, social media video, or something else?

Clara Barton, Angel of the Battlefield

Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the only Civil War-era figure receiving correspondence from children. Clara Barton was known as the ”Angel of the Battlefield” during the Civil War for the way she tended to wounded soldiers on the battlefields. Barton was also in charge of organizing the soldiers’ supplies, and she established the Missing Soldiers Office to respond to thousands of letters from people looking for their loved ones. Later she founded and led the American Red Cross and assisted with medical needs during the Franco-Prussian War. Barton founded the National First Aid Society when she was in her 80s! It’s no wonder that children wanted to know what the childhood of such an accomplished person was like. Below are copies of two letters sent to Barton by kids later in her life.

A letter to Clara Barton, written in precise cursive penmanship. The letter is transcribed in the text below.
Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The letters say:

October 3rd 1906
New York
Dear Miss Clara Barton:
Our classes in The History of The United States are studying about you and we want to know more.
Our teacher says she has seen you. That you live in, or near Washington, District of Columbia, and that although very busy, she thought you might be willing to receive a short letter from us, and I write to ask you to be so kind as to tell us what you did when you were a little girl like us – all of us want to know. I am almost thirteen.
If you could send us a few words we should all be very happy. I write for all,
Your little girl friend
Mary St. Clare
New York

Miss Clara Barton,
I am studying about you in my History, and what you did in the war, and I thought I would write and ask you what you did afore you did that.
Yours truly,
James C. Hamlin
May 24th 1906
Iowa

While Mary and James did not make a direct suggestion to Barton as Grace did with Lincoln, their letters did move Clara to take action. Take a look at her response to the children’s letters:

A letter from Clara Barton that fills two sides of paper, written in precise and careful handwriting. The letter is transcribed in the text below.
Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

It reads:

Glen Echo, Md, May 29, 1907

Dear Children of the Schools
Your oft repeated appeals have reached me. They are too many and too earnest to be disregarded, and because of them, and because of my love for you, I have dedicated this little book to you.
I have made it small that you may the more easily read it.
I have done it in the hope that it might give you pleasure, and in the wish that when you shall be women and men, you may each remember, as I do, that you were once a child, full of childish thought, and action, but of whom it was said, “Suffer Them to come unto Me, and forth of them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Faithfully, your friend.
Clara Barton.

Letters from kids inspired Clara Barton to write a memoir! You can see this letter and the two children’s letters printed in her book, The Story of My Childhood.

By the way, you might notice that the handwriting on all three of those letters looks very similar. That’s because Clara herself probably made copies of the letters to use in putting together the book for publication. It’s a good thing for modern historians that she had pretty clear penmanship.

Photograph of an older woman with her hair pulled back. She wears a black dress with a lace covering.
Clara Barton, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front, circa 1904. This portrait was taken around the time that the letters above were sent. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress).

Rosa Parks, Civil Rights Activist

Kids wrote letters to prominent people more recently, too. You can see many letters from children that were sent to African American civil rights activist Rosa Parks over the years: 1986, 1990-1993, 1995, 1997, 2000. Here are some highlights:

To Rosa Parks

I love you

I like you

I like what you Done

I no you are nice

 

Dear Rosa Parks

it was not fair.

I like what you did

 

Dear Mrs. Parks,

We celebrated your birthday in our room at William Penn School. You are very special because you stood up for yourself and for America instead of getting up for the white people. We love you for that.

If I met Rosa Parks I would be nice to her. I would be happier than ever. I know she would be nice to me.

 

Dear Mrs. Parks,

We love you. The new year is fun. I am sorry that you were taken to jail.

It’s fun to read what kids have to say, isn’t it? Think of someone you admire. What would you want to say to them?

A mural painted on the side of a building of a woman with the caption "Na."- Rosa Parks, 1955. Rosa is depicted holding up the numbers 7053, posing like a mugshot.
Artist Samuel Hale’s “Rosa Parks 1955” mural on a building in downtown Rogers, Arkansas. Carol M. Highsmith, 2020. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress).

Thomas Eisner, Scientist

Activists and politicians aren’t the only ones who receive letters from kids. Thomas Eisner was known as the “Bug Man” because he was an entomologist, or a scientist who studies insects. He wrote multiple books about insects and was considered an authority on animal behavior and evolution. The Library of Congress holds Thomas Eisner’s papers in the Manuscript Division. Here is an excerpt from a letter that a sixth grader wrote to Eisner in 1983.

I am a 6th grade student at St. Mark School in Richmond and am getting ready for a science fair at our school next spring…Have you ever saved webs to show? Do you know what would be the best way to do this. I thought of spraying the web with a white mist paint and then sticking it to black construction paper.

Do you think that would work?

Here is a part of Eisner’s response:

Thanks for your neat letter…I don’t think I’m an expert on saving spider webs, but how about the following:

Take a metal clothes hanger (like the ones you get back from the dry cleaners), and open it up to form a circular loop. Get some rubber cement from your parents (careful, it’s flammable!) and paint the loop with this. sticky material until it dries (it doesn’t dry completely, it sort of becomes hardened and sticky). Then go up to a web, and chase the spider out. Move the loop up to the spider web so that it makes even contact with it. Then take a knitting needle, heat it with a flame like a cigarette lighter (do it with your parents), and go around the outside of the loop so as to singe the hairs and free the loop from the web. You’ll be able to lift the whole web out, and if you hang it up in a dust-free room, it should be good for months…I wish you all the best of luck with your science fair.

It’s nice to see his kind and educational response!

Am amber-colored background with a spider web across it. Two spiders are at the center of the web, one more in focus than the other. Tehy are narrow with light yellow bodies and big brown spots.
Spiders in a barn on the Lowcountry Trail at Brookgreen Gardens, a vast complex of sculpture gardens, ecosystem trails, a wildlife preserve and a small zoo on four former rice plantations in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. Carol M. Highsmith, 2017. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Have you ever written to someone you admire? Who would you write to, and what would you want to say? Nowadays it’s easy to reach out to just about anyone online, but there’s something extra special about a letter that’s sent in the mail. As fun as it is to read letters that kids have written to people in the past, it’s even better to write and send one yourself!

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