J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Thomas Jefferson and the Mystery Woman

Graham Dozier of the Virginia Historical Society made a mystery-filled public announcement earlier this year:
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.

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?
To follow the contest and submit your answer, visit the Virginia Historical Society.

1 comment:

Larry Cebula said...

About 6 years ago my son, a French and History major, went to the Missouri Historical Society and explored their Jefferson correspondence collection, which is fairly extensive. He said that many of the letters were Jefferson writing in French to various acquaintances, some of them Paris ladies. He was under the impression that mush of Jefferson's foreign language writings have not been published or translated. Maybe the answer is there?