Letters are some of the richest primary source materials available to historians. They offer uniquely candid first-person perspectives on historical events, and the American Revolution is no exception. The wealth of letters from this period fall into a variety of subgenres, each with its own contribution to our historical understanding.
Open letters, meant for public consumption and therefore published in newspapers or as pamphlets, most resemble conventional essays or other political tracts. They were a very common way to spread political ideas in the eighteenth century. Statesmen like John Dickinson of Pennsylvania published a series of such letters starting in the late 1760s that clearly laid out the logic for why it was unfair of Great Britain to tax the colonists when they had no representation in Parliament; these letters were read widely and did much to turn colonial sentiment toward the idea of declaring independence. Similarly, after independence was achieved and the United States Constitution was crafted, its framers commonly wrote open letters to their constituents urging ratification—while the document’s opponents published similar letters urging rejection.
Another important kind of letter came in the form of military and diplomatic correspondence. Well before the telegraph, telephone, and eventually email, the only way to deliver reports about the outcomes of battles, legislative debates, or international negotiations was through the handwritten word. Though not always made public at the time, this sort of correspondence was understood to be of great historical value and was therefore preserved as part of the government record, and is a tremendous asset to historians today.
The final category of letter is the one that perhaps comes first to mind and is in many ways the most interesting: the traditional private letter between individuals. These are especially interesting because in addition to offering insight into large historical events, they also tend to greatly humanize those events, and also turn history into something more like sociology or psychology, by elucidating the nature of interpersonal relationships in the past. And letters between soldiers, travelers, government officials, and their loved ones are especially useful and interesting when the correspondents are the likes of George and Martha Washington, or John and Abigail Adams. Such married couples from the educated elite, who were routinely separated for long periods by the exigencies of government service and war, wrote voluminously to one another, and typically saved all their letters. In addition to revealing the private thoughts of men like the soon-to-be first president of the United States about the progress of the Revolutionary War, these and other letters are extremely valuable documents about the experience of women in a time when their place was considered to be the private sphere, and, with a few exceptions, they left relatively few public statements about their ideas and feelings.