American Revolution Vignette – Letters and Communications

We are now completely used to instant communications, yet not very long ago we didn’t have the Internet, and the only way to communicate “instantly” was by telephone or fax, before that teletypes, before that only letters.

When I was a foreign exchange student in 1974 in New York, communicating back to Germany had to be by hardcopy letter. I still remember that the postage for an airmail letter overseas was 21 cents, and a regular domestic letter was 10 cents. Talking on the telephone overseas was still forbiddingly expensive, so the only time I talked with my family back home was at Christmas time in a short phone call that was actually donated by the telephone company and there was a newspaper article about the phone call in the local paper: “Foreign Exchange Student Calls Home!” – I kid you not.

That was only 35 years ago. An airmail letter home took about a week. So I could expect a response as fast as two weeks after mailing my letter.

Now roll back to 1780, when Franklin, Adams and Jefferson were all in Europe, spread out over England, Holland and France, conducting the ambassadorial business of the fledgling United States. A letter then had to be  carried by coach to the nearest harbor, where it boarded a ship that took at best a month, sometimes 3 or 4 months, to cross the Atlantic, depending on time of year, weather, luck, and avoidance of capture by a warring nation. At the destination harbor, the letter was then carried by coach again to the destination city, and there by horseback rider to the addressee. It was not unheard of that a letter would take 6 months to arrive at its destination.

This made sensible communications difficult. Adams wrote to his wife fairly frequently, and there could be dozens of letters on the way before one response would arrive. Simply coordinating the letters and responses must have been a challenge.

But think about the complexity of conducting the business of a nation. The President of the United States would send instructions to the ambassador in France about how to approach a negotiation. Back home the President would then need to make a decision based on the outcome of that negotiation, so he would need a response letter back. That exchange could easily take half a year. Imagine there is the threat of a naval attack from an enemy that we were trying to negotiate peace with. The peace could already have been agreed to in Europe months before, but both parties in their ships didn’t know about it and proceeded to shoot at each other. News of such unexpected battles would then upset the peace again months later.

Today, and just within the last 10 years, we think nothing of instant messaging or emails for immediate responses. Business of the speed of light. How much easier we have it now, and how few people in history have ever had that luxury.

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