The Greatest Letter Ever Written?

Jourdon Anderson

Perhaps not. But it’s up there: a former slave’s reply to his former master’s request that he come back and work his farm.

The response is priceless, and demonstrates both a subtle and lacerating wit that would have made a Twain or a Wilde grin ear to ear, and an innate intelligence that finally found its expression.

Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

Check out the source, Letters of Note, a fun, illuminating site.

H/T: Smithsonian Magazine, which found it at Open Culture, which found it at Letters of Note.

UPDATE (11/17): I’ve been thinking about this letter and this man, Jourdon Anderson, in relation to the pathetic wastes of space that populate so many U.S. campuses. Here’s a guy who was a slave. He didn’t just have a dead-end job for crappy pay; he didn’t lead a life of mere monotony or drudgery; he didn’t have to suffer the “indignities” of microaggressions and bad-taste Halloween costumes — he was a slave. He was owned by another human being and forced to work for a bare-subsistence existence against his will with no hope in a culture bent to view him as less than human and make no apologies for it.

And yet read that letter. He’s on to the system. He on to the “master” who doesn’t get why Anderson wouldn’t come back and just get on with the job. But he’s moving forward with his life, hopeful even, to the extent that he can be living under laws that remained deliberately, provocatively hostile to black people. He’s not even angry at “the good Maker,” under whose providential “care” he wound up in chains. In fact he remains concerned that his children both obtain an education and “form virtuous habits.”

Virtuous habits. Think of the howls such an expression would elicit on campuses today, unless one immediately qualified the expression as having to do with veganism and fighting climate change.

I have been a voracious reader from a very young age. I entered school able to read, because my mother taught me to read, using everything from Dr. Seuss to Scholastic readers to abridged editions of classics. When I was 11, she gave me Up from Slavery. She just left it on my desk. I read it. And I realized what she was trying to tell me. If this man, Booker T. Washington, who was a literal slave could nevertheless find a way to get an education and found vocational schools, most famously the Tuskegee Institute, that exist to this day, what possible excuse could you have for not achieving your goals?


7 thoughts on “The Greatest Letter Ever Written?

  1. My vote for the greatest letter ever written: Paul of Tarsus’ letter to the Christians in Rome


      1. Good point. The letter literally changed the course of Western Civilization at least three times — Augustine, Luther, Wesley (the preacher not the pirate) has some sticky theological wickets. Better to leave it out of the running.


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