American Presidents

Using Primary Sources: Letters from the Presidents

This Teacher Guide was developed by 1999 C-SPAN Teacher Fellow Steven Vetter who teaches reading to 7th graders at West Hernando Middle School in Brooksville, Florida. C-SPAN provided by Time Warner.

Review Mr. Vetter's ideas for using letters from the American Presidents web site in the classroom.


This Teacher Guide provides activities that incorporate primary sources, letters, written by each of the 41 presidents located on C-SPAN's American Presidents web site. Use the drop down menu to "Pick a President." Then read a letter by the president posted to the site by choosing the icon located under the president's portrait.


To demonstrate how primary sources, specifically letters of the presidents featured on the American Presidents web site, can be used in the classroom to learn about the character, personality, and historical legacy of that particular president.


1. Learn about the personal life of the president

2. Learn about his personal and familial relationships

3. Learn about the character and personality of the president

4. Learn about how the president reacted to the historical events in which he participated

Directions: Explore C-SPAN's American Presidents web site and become familiar with all 41 presidents. Pick a president that interests you and read the letter posted on his page.

Part One: Components of a Letter
1. To whom was this letter written?

2. When was this letter written? Where was this letter written?

3. During what phase of the president's life was this letter written? Was this letter written when the president was a young person, during his early career, during his presidential term, or after he left the White House?

4. What, if anything, do we know about the recipient of this letter? What was this person's relationship to the president?

5. Was this a personal or a professional letter?

Part Two: What the letters reveal
1. In one sentence, state the subject of this letter.

2. What was the purpose of this letter? (Answer the questions that apply.)

a. Inform: What type of information is being communicated in this letter? What is the tone?

b. Persuade: Is the president attempting to persuade the recipient of this letter? In what way? What techniques does the president use in order to convince this person that his argument or position is correct or worthy of consideration? Are the president's arguments emotional or rational in nature?

c. Entertain: What is the president's relationship to the recipient of this letter? Family member? Friend? Colleague? Notice how the president closes his letter. Do you get a sense of how often these two individuals communicate? What evidence have you found?

3. What does this letter reveal about the personality and character of the president? (Answer the questions that apply.)

a. Early Career: What can be learned about the president's early life from this letter? Does this letter reveal anything about this future president's personality as a young person? Is there any evidence of ambition or a desire to seek public office? Is there any evidence of leadership qualities or persuasive powers?

b. Presidential Years: Does this letter focus on any policy or program of this president's term in office? What can we learn about the president's character or personality from this letter? Is the president responding to the success or failure of a policy or program of interest to the president? What can we learn from this letter about the historical events that were occurring when this letter was written?

c. Post-presidential Years: Does this letter reveal anything about how the president's life has changed since leaving office? Can we learn anything about the post-presidential career of the president? Does the president seem to have adjusted to life outside the White House? In what ways is the president's life different since leaving the presidency? Does this letter reveal whether the president is still involved in public service? Does this letter reveal a concern with his presidential legacy?

Part Three: Writing Assignments

Choose One:
1. Write an extended paragraph in which you summarize the content of this letter.

2. Write an extended paragraph in which you argue about whether the purpose of this letter is to inform, to persuade, or to entertain.

3. If the president kept a copy of this letter in his presidential papers, why do you think the president considered this letter important? If the recipient saved this letter, why do you think this letter was important to the recipient? Write a persuasive paragraph in which you argue whether this letter deserves inclusion in a collection of "100 Noteworthy Letters of the President."

4. Write an extended paragraph in which you argue that a reader can learn many things about the character and personality of the president from this letter.

5. Write a response to this letter as if you were the person to whom it is addressed. Remember to consider your relationship to the president and the time period during which this letter was written.

Created by America's Cable Companies.