What Difference Can a Letter Make? —by Jinny Batterson
Of late the future of the United States Postal Service seems in doubt. Congressional hearings are being held. The recently appointed Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, has defended his changes in service levels as attempts to streamline the post office’s business practices. Others have questioned whether the changes he is implementing undermine vital services, including a crucial pandemic-era method for casting ballots—by mail.
I’m a fan of the postal service. It’s provided a lifeline, especially during periods when I’ve resided outside the United States. Then, the postal service provided the surest way for me to interact with family and friends back home. Internet access might be spotty or absent, phone lines might go down in earthquakes or other natural disasters, but the mail nearly always got through.
Today, August 26, many in the U.S. celebrate Women’s Equality Day. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. constitution for women’s suffrage: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Many of us know the story of the letter that made a difference in the suffrage fight—a six-page handwritten missive from a widowed mother to her son, Harry T. Burn, a young 24 year-old Republican lawmaker from McMinn County, Tennessee. After hearing a scathing denunciation of the amendment by one of her son’s legislative mentors, Febb Burn was moved to include a gentle rebuttal in her letter, nestled among descriptions of doings on the family farm. She closed with a suggestion, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt…(a longtime suffragist).” When Burn broke a previous tie in the Tennessee legislature to support suffrage, others at first thought he’d made a mistake. He had not. He’d opted for conscience and the advice of his mother over political expedience in his heavily conservative district. (For a lengthier account, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/local/history/tennessee-19-amendment-letter-harry-burn-mother-febb/ ).
My family has a different letter that made a difference. It was written by an Army corporal serving in Germany. My uncle, John Voris, loved learning. He described in his letter that he’d sent a big batch of books home, and hoped for a new shipment soon. “About the books, … I try to keep one or two about me all the time. You see that four years in the army represents a big hole in your life. I try to keep studying and reading so that I can salvage some of these years, in part at least.”
Much of the November, 1944 letter describes his prior campaigns and the bronze star he’d just been awarded. What made and makes the letter special is that it was received by his family at about the same time as the telegram informing them that he had been killed in action. While the letter couldn’t bring John back, it helped assuage their grief. His younger sister, a printer, had the letter typeset and distributed. It has been passed down from generation to generation. Along with a few pictures, it’s all we have to remind us of an idealistic young soldier who didn’t live to see the next peacetime.
The Febb Burn letter is now displayed in a museum. Most family mementoes have a less illustrious place, but they are still special. Our emails, tweets and instagram posts are not likely to replace them. So take the time to write a postal letter to someone you care about. Maybe write to the Postmaster General, too. Letters make a difference.