Historical research is often detective work. But even after the most dogged efforts of very smart historians, many questions remain unanswered about the people and events of the past. You do not have to go back to ancient history to be stumped by basic unknowns. Libraries and museums like those at the Virginia Historical Society contain numerous items not fully identified, such as unsigned letters, unidentified photographs, and other unexplained objects. Even more puzzling are greater unknowns scattered throughout the history of our country, some of them in the lives of even the most famous Americans.To follow the contest and submit your answer, visit the Virginia Historical Society.
The V.H.S. has created a feature on its web site to help resolve some of these conundrums. The Historical Mystery Prize will be given for the most persuasive argument made to answer the featured mystery, which consists of a particularly thorny unresolved issue from history.
The problem we pose for 2011-12 concerns a Thomas Jefferson letter. We do not know the answer; there may not be a winner. Perhaps it is an unsolvable mystery, but perhaps you can find an answer that makes sense. The person who submits the most cogent explanation by May 1, 2012, will receive a check for $1,000 at the annual VHS awards luncheon in July. . . .
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?