The letter is on one piece of stationery, folded in half so that Page 1 is on the top right, with Page 4 on the top left, Page 2 on the bottom right, and Page 3 to its left. If you could feel it, you’d notice right away the weight of the paper as well as its creamy finish. The name of Roosevelt’s home—Sagamore Hill—is embossed in green at the top of Page 1. Again, there’s no indication that he had been president on the stationery, so we’re left to figure out whether that was modesty or whether it was typical for former presidents.
It’s interesting to see his handwriting and how he squeezes in his writing at the end to fit it all on the one page. You can explain to students that it doesn’t really matter whether you can read every single word—you can gather valuable insight into a writer’s state of mind through the corrections, the additions, the thickness of ink, and the way the letters are formed.
Roosevelt’s response is very different in style from the Houghton Mifflin letter, demonstrating that an individual person may have written it, whereas our company’s letter is more businesslike. It’s clear from the very start that Roosevelt is declining to write the book, but along the way he takes swipes at Charles Eliot, the author of the book that Houghton Mifflin had sent him with their letter; Woodrow Wilson; and the Atlantic Monthly. It would be interesting to have students use a letter like this to imagine what the writer’s character was like and compare it to contemporary accounts.
The rest of the correspondence consists of several letters written over the course of the next two years, with Houghton Mifflin finding new reasons to ask him to write the book again and Roosevelt’s letters becoming increasingly shorter as he finds new ways to say no. This correspondence is a good example of what primary sources can do in the history classroom: make the people of the past real, and their lives—or at least some small part of their lives—knowable and relatable. Primary sources are history unfiltered, and through them, students can engage with the past in ways that supplement and enhance their understanding of history and its relevance to today.
How to Find Primary Sources for Your Classroom
If you’re looking for ways to introduce primary sources to your students, the best places to start are your state or local historical society, your state archives, or your local public library. If you work in a town where there is a university, you might contact their archives or rare book room to see if they host student groups for a visit.
There are also a lot of places on the web to view primary resources. Many organizations are digitizing their collections for a wider audience and to provide new and different voices to the narrative of history. The Library of Congress, the various museums of the Smithsonian, and The Digital Public Library of America have broad holdings and have put together collections on many topics for easy access by students and teachers.
Primary source documents are the building blocks of history, and studying them allows students to draw their own conclusions about history, connect to a person or an event, and tell a story in their own way.
Want to further immerse your students in history? Learn more about the HMH Social Studies program for students in Grades 6–12.