Letters of Famous Historical Fathers & Sons, in Honor of Father’s Day

Rare letters to, from, and about fathers and sons at Raab

As Father’s Day approaches on June 18th, we’re taking a moment to explore historical autographs and documents from our inventory that showcase the father-son relationship. From birth announcements to fatherly advice to business dealings, the presidents and writers featured here put their thoughts on paper, offering us a peek into their private correspondence.    

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1852 announcement of his son’s birth

Tennyson Letter 1852

The earliest piece is an autograph letter signed in August 1852 in which the British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson announces the birth of his first son, Hallam. “The new boy is well,” he tells his friend, John Marshall, and his wife is recuperating. 

Hallam Tennyson, 2nd Baron Tennyson, would go on to serve as the governor of South Australia from 1899 to 1902 and the second Governor-general of Australia from 1903 to 1904. 

Chester A. Arthur and his father discuss business

Chester A. Arthur Letter 1863

In 1881, Chester A. Arthur became America’s 21st president, succeeding James Garfield after his assassination. Arthur served out the term, leaving office in 1885.

This signed letter, written to his father, Rev. William Arthur, is from two decades earlier, on May 5, 1863. At the time Arthur was the inspector-general of the state of New York, and his father was pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Albany. The letter concerns mortgage and legal entanglements, revealing their intertwined business interests.  

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. advises Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. about family history

Oliver Wendell Holmes Letter 1876

In this very personal letter from 1876, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the notable physician and poet, writes to his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a legal scholar and later Supreme Court justice. 

Addressing his son familiarly as Wendell, the elder Holmes discusses his poem, “Dorothy Q,” based on an ancestor of theirs, and other bits of genealogy. He mentions that a relative has compiled “nine folio volumes of family papers and advises that it might be of interest for his son to study. 

This is the only letter we have ever seen from Holmes Sr. to Holmes Jr. A search of public sale records going back over 40 years fails to turn up even one other example.

Benjamin Harrison’s anguished private letters to his son

Benjamin Harrison Letter 1896

Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States, Benjamin Harrison was elected the 23rd president of the United States, serving from 1889-1893. The Raab Collection currently holds four autograph letters of Harrison’s, of which three are addressed to his son, Russell, with whom he had a fraught relationship. During his presidency, Russell had acted as his father’s aide and secretary, but Harrison’s intention to remarry after the death of his first wife caused a rift between them. Even presidential families encounter these ups and downs.

In 1895, Harrison chastises Russell in a manuscript letter he has marked “private,” saying, “You have never come to me or shown me any consideration save when you were in trouble.” He closes with this postscript, “Whatever further is said let it be face to face, and God give me the grace to say it in kindness for I must always desire your good and the happiness of your family.” 

A year later, in another very personal letter (pictured above), Harrison congratulates his son on the birth of his son. At the time, the former president and his son were still estranged. Harrison writes, “I had seen in the newspapers a report of the birth of your son but waited official confirmation before extending my congratulations to you and May. I am glad to hear that she had no unfavorable results and that the boy is so strong and healthy.” This touching and very personal letter is unpublished and was acquired directly from Harrison’s descendants.

Father and son were still squabbling in 1898. In a long and unpublished letter, Benjamin Harrison explains that while he has tried to be benevolent, he feels he has been disrespected and cannot continue to support Russell’s “doubtful enterprises” which require large sums of money. Harrison closes with this timeless advice to his son, “Whatever course you determine upon, you owe it to your family to keep up heart and courage.”

Julian Hawthorne on his father’s masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter

Julian Hawthorne Letter 1906

Julian Hawthorne was the only son of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, best known for his 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter

In this letter signed in 1906, Julian is discussing that famous work of American literature, in reply to a book and art collector George Sidney Hellman, who has just acquired a special copy of The Scarlet Letter. “Your copy of the first edition of my father’s first romance, ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ has greatly interested me,” Julian writes. “The publishers – Ticknor and Fields – when they printed the book, did not anticipate its larger and lasting sales, but supposed it would have a popularity not greatly exceeding that of his volumes of short tales. And they were nearly as much surprised as my father was when it became one of the most famous books of the day.”

Julian goes on to discuss more book-collecting minutiae, before telling Hellman, “I think I may safely congratulate you on having become the owner of perhaps the most desirable copy of my father’s great work that there is in the world….” 

Theodore Roosevelt esteems his four sons, all fighting in World War I

Theodore Roosevelt Letter 1917

Theodore Roosevelt had four sons: Quentin, Kermit, Theodore, and Archie. In this brief letter from 1917, typed on his Metropolitan magazine letterhead and bearing his presidential signature, Roosevelt replies to an acquaintance who told him all three of his sons were in the service. Roosevelt, who had served in the military during the Spanish-American War, responded with pride that all of his sons were serving in World War I as well. 

Only three of Roosevelt’s sons returned home after the Armistice in late 1918. Sadly, Quentin Roosevelt had been killed in action the previous July at the Second Battle of the Marne. His father was devastated and lived only another six months himself.

Theodore Roosevelt and Sons 1907 photo
Roosevelt & his sons, 1907. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Father’s Day Gifts for Collectors

All of the letters listed above are currently for sale at The Raab Collection, and it goes without saying that any would make a fine Father’s Day gift for a history buff or a serious collector. We are also now offering signed or inscribed copies of Nathan Raab’s book, The Hunt for History

Lastly, it bears mentioning that The Raab Collection is headed by a father-son team, Steven and Nathan Raab, whose passion for history inspires all that we do.

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