- Historic Sites
The founders of the first women’s colleges weren’t necessarily crusaders or even educators; one savored a vision of himself as the second Great Emancipator, and another was motivated chiefly by hatred of her brother
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Once Jewett met Matthew Vassar, he was convinced that Providence had led him to Poughkeepsie. Their friendship quickly deepened in the Baptist Church, where Jewett found many opportunities to discuss theology with his new acquaintance. One topic they both found especially stimulating was what Jewett called “the duty of the rich man to use his property for the glory of God.” At that time the hospital project was Vassar’s current favorite, and he lost no time in asking Jewett’s sage advice about it. As a disinterested observer Jewett could be refreshingly candid. The hospital idea did not seem at all wise to him. Quite the contrary. “Great hospitals,” said Jewett, “are for great cities” and not for insignificant towns like Poughkeepsie. He could hardly imagine a “more unwise use of money.”
“Mr. Vassar expressed great surprise at this unexpected disapproval of his plans,” Jewett wrote later, but Vassar soon “became dissatisfied with the provisions of his will.” The proposed hospital joined the growing collection of discarded beneficiaries, and Jewett immediately proceeded to elaborate upon his alternate plan. He just happened to have some pertinent material in writing. One of these documents was called “Facts and Reflections Respecting the Founding of a College for Young Ladies.” The facts may have been a bit shaky, but the reflections showed evidence of careful research into the nature of Matthew Vassar. “From its towers lifted to the sky, it will reflect the luster of your munificence so long as the sun shall shine in the heavens.” That made heady reading for a country brewer who had been thinking about an infirmary. The present, Jewett emphasized, is the time for action, “at least as far as to making a final testamentary arrangement on the subject.” The sooner Vassar acted, the better. No one knew what would happen to the stock market in case of civil war. Jewett himself, growing no younger, was burning to realize his dream at once. In return for the new will Jewett offered Vassar nothing less than immortality. To you, Providence offers the high privilege, the peculiar honor, of actually establishing and putting into operation the first grand permanent endowed female college ever opened in the United States.
It would be a monument to Vassar “more lasting than the pyramids,” Jewett said.
Vassar was dazzled, transformed by these words from an ordinary prosperous businessman into the Poughkeepsie Pharaoh. He liked the role immediately and fancied himself perfectly cast. This brilliant newcomer understood him far better than his unimaginative and self-seeking nephews or his dreary wife ever had. He would be a pioneer educator and uplifter of half of humanity, a great emancipator at least on a par with the President of the United States. Vassar tried out his new concept of himself in his private diary: “The Founder of Vassar College and President Lincoln—two noble emancipationists, one of women.”
Jewett, of course, had his own dream of glory, and it was much more explicit, if slightly less grandiose, than Matthew Vassar’s. He wanted only to be president of the first grand, permanent endowed female college. Purveying trivial airs and graces to planters’ daughters, though profitable, had never really fulfilled him; it was a waste of his Dartmouth B.A. and his advanced degree in divinity. During the long and steamy Alabama afternoons Jewett must have envisioned another sort of women’s academy altogether. He had, in fact, become obsessed with it. In this glorious and hypothetical institution graceful young ladies would bend their pretty heads over logarithm tables and study the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. From time to time they would lift their eyes heavenward to note the position of the stars in their courses, perceiving the faint but unmistakable music of the spheres. They would be ennobled and transported far beyond the mundane realm of French knots and china painting, and so would MiIo P. Jewett, their mentor and guide on this marvelous journey of the spirit.
Jewett assured Matthew Vassar that it all could be done for four hundred thousand dollars, the estimated size of Vassar’s personal fortune. During the following months Vassar’s enthusiasm for the college plan advanced and receded like the tides. He was tempted, but he saw objections, risks, and hazards. The old man was vain and susceptible, but he hadn’t become so rich by being either gullible or impulsive. Moreover, the nephews objected strenuously to the college idea and to Jewett himself, whom they called an incubus and worse. Vassar wavered and reneged, but finally he acceded to Jewett’s demands, bravely destroying all former wills and allocating not only the basic four hundred thousand dollars to the women’s-college project but the rest of his estate as well, property that had not been mentioned in the original discussion.