Dead presidents for a problem involving a dead president: a history mystery at the Virginia Historical Society

Guess who?

It’s true!  (Via the H-OIEAHC listserv.)  And amazingly enough, it involves women’s history!  Hold onto your hats, scholars of the Early Republic:  the Virginia Historical Society will award $1,000 to the person who can explain this fascinating comment and perhaps identify the woman in question:

On January 13, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson included a cryptic comment when he wrote a letter to his treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin. The relevant passage in the president’s letter reads, “The appointment of a woman to office is an innovation for which the public is not prepared, nor am I.”

Historian Jon Kukla, author of Mr. Jefferson’s Women, describes this statement as Jefferson’s most candid reference on the subject of women and their public role. But Kukla was not able to find any comment in the Jefferson-Gallatin correspondence that would identify the woman in question or otherwise explain the president’s statement.

Can you solve this mystery? Was Jefferson referring to a specific woman? If so, who was she? Submit your argument to historicalmysteryprize AT, preferably in fewer than 500 words. If necessary, you may also add attachments that buttress your argument. If the VHS is convinced that your explanation solves the mystery, we will declare it the winner and close the competition. We will then invite you to the awards luncheon in July 2012 and ask you to participate in publicizing the solution online.

Any guesses?  Leave them in the comments below, AFTER you’ve e-mailed them to the VHS.  As most of you already know, I’m pretty far from a presidential historian, but I think this is a really interesting question.  Come on, grad students:  you can get at least a week of research done in the U.S. for $1,000. 

HINT:  Rosemarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash  might be of use to you, as might Nancy Isenberg’s recent bio of Aaron Burr and Catherine Allgor’s book on Dolley Madison.  At least, that’s where I’d go first, in addition to scouring the Jefferson papers at the American Memory project.  If Kukla wrote a whole book on “Mr. Jefferson’s women” but he didn’t figure it out, I’m thinking that a women’s historian, rather than a Jefferson historian, might be the very person to solve this puzzle.  (Either that, or an expert on Albert Gallatin, I suppose.)

18 thoughts on “Dead presidents for a problem involving a dead president: a history mystery at the Virginia Historical Society

  1. “If Kukla wrote a whole book on ‘Mr. Jefferson’s women’ but he didn’t figure it out, I’m thinking that a women’s historian, rather than a Jefferson historian, might be the very person to solve this puzzle…”

    Hear, hear on that, and for a lot of other conundrums. Change the lens on a research tool and whole bunches of blurry lumps of presumedly undifferentiated “moon rock” on the edges of the camera field become evidence “hiding in plain sight.” This can also be a nice experiment in the “crowd sourcing” of answers to tough problems. For years, people have posted queries on the H-Net and asked for help, on-list or off-list, with varied results. But in post-subsistence America, cash is good to search.


  2. Will anybody out there “see” the thousand, and “raise” it by $500 for the second question? 🙂 We may go on strike, so I can’t…


  3. Michael Merrill
    Radical History Review Winter 1977 1977(13): 42-71

    It’s a hard one to get your hands on …


  4. Research Prizes for women’s history! cool!

    the subsistence joke totally went over my head. I’ll have to check out the cite from robyn.


  5. robyn gets the prize (the secondary prize, for the citation) which is currently unfunded–mostly due to recalcitrance and ideological double-talk on the other side of the proverbial “aisle” in Washington. But a good pickup on the cite.


  6. I don’t know enough about the political discussions of this period to make a legitimate stab at an answer, but I did take note of the date. 1807 is the year New Jersey repealed the provision in its constitution that allowed unmarried women of property to vote.

    The debate over woman suffrage in New Jersey reached a new peak in 1806-1807. Was concern about women voters seeking public office part of the discussion? If so, Gallatin might have made a reference (possibly humorous–the voting women of New Jersey tended to be Federalists), and this was Jefferson’s reply.


  7. “I refer you to a book I recently read by Joyce Appleby – Inheriting the Revolution. She relates how Albert Gallatin when asked to suggest cabinet members ventured to say that perhaps it would be useful to consider women for a cabinet position. He then received Jefferson’s testy reply.”


  8. I sent the message as directed but I’m not sure it didn’t go astray, my email was acting oddly. Is there any way to find if it went there?


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