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 vahistorical.org, 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.)