Solving the Conundrums of History
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 VHS has created this feature of the web site in an effort 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 Woman in Question
The problem we pose for 2011–12 concerns a Thomas Jefferson letter. We do not know the answer. 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? Submit your argument to firstname.lastname@example.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.
If we do not receive a convincing answer, we will not award the prize. If we are persuaded that the mystery woman has been identified, and more than one person makes that identification, the prize will go to the one whose email we receive first.
Follow this link to view an image of Jefferson's letter to Gallatin.
The chain of events that lead up to President Thomas Jefferson's brief note in January 1807 began three months earlier with an article published in the Wilmington Gazette announcing the death of Henry Long, the keeper of the Bald Head Lighthouse near Wilmington, North Carolina, in a hunting accident. On October 27, 1806, Timothy Bloodworth, collector of the port of Wilmington, wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin reporting on repairs needed to the lighthouse and proposing that Henry Long's widow, Rebecca, officially become keeper of the lighthouse. Secretary Gallatin passed the request on to Jefferson, who, on January 13, responded, "[t]he appointment of a woman to office is an innovation for which the public is not prepared; nor am I." The president then went on to recommend that Sedgwick Springs, another applicant for the post, be appointed lighthouse keeper. Gallatin wrote back to Timothy Bloodworth ending the matter by announcing that Jefferson had appointed Springs to fill the vacancy left by the death of Henry Long.
Congratulations to David E. Paterson of Norfolk who submitted the award-winning answer to our historical mystery!
Engraving, Thomas Jefferson Early 19th C., (Virginia Historical Society, 2000.39.1)
Engraving, Albert Gallatin Early 19th C., (Virginia Historical Society, 2011.1.112)
Remember: though we do not know the answer, we need to be convinced by closely reasoned argument, based on historical sources, before conferring the prize