Reading old letters is one of those guilty pleasures, we know we aren’t the intended audience.  It is, of course, that which makes the information in the letters both more useful and more misleading.  We don’t have the full story, but the story that is there isn’t written with an eye towards our reaction.  Our offense or our delight are not being deliberately provoked by the original author.

I tend to pay less attention to the snarls of the personal relationships in the older letters, though they intrigue me greatly.  My particular delight comes from the passages which more fully describe the time and setting.  Sometimes, these passages can capture a philosophy far better than a dry bit of argument.  Below is a piece written in 1873, by William Gillette (then in Houston, Texas) to Helen Ellsworth (then in Europe).  The confidence in the Manifest Destiny philosophy is clearly in full flower here:

“Texas is extraordinary. To say it is the best part of the great United States would hardly do, out of consideration to old New England. But Texas will sometime be a wonderful place. When the Mississippi is lined with great and handsome cities every few miles of its course, and the Territories are divided into innumerable states, and cultivated like gardens; when Chicago shall have outstripped in size and splendor London or Paris, and Boston become the literary center of the world, then Texas will be one of the wonders of this mundane sphere.”

Whatever one thinks of the philosophy, how well that seems to capture the youthful confidence and passion of the time!