- 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
It was a total and unqualified triumph for Milo P. Jewett except, as he now realized, for one small thing: Vassar had written a will, which meant that he would have to die before the college could get under way. Jewett would have preferred a gift. A gift, in fact, was what he had had in mind all along. Though Matthew Vassar was considerably older than Jewett, the brewer was sturdy and rosy and, judging from all outward appearances, nowhere near the end that so preoccupied him. Jewett, on the other hand, was frail, thin, and white-haired. He had to have his college at once if he was to be in fit condition to lead it. An eventual college, fifteen or even twenty years in the future, would be worse than none. Jewett’s persuasive powers, already somewhat taxed, were now stretched to the utmost. He changed his tactics and marshalled a whole new set of arguments. If civil war came, the male population would be decimated. Young women, deprived of husbands and fathers, would have to support themselves. A fate worse than death awaited those who lacked education and marketable skills. A will could be contested by spiteful nephews, but an outright gift could not. Moreover, if Vassar gave the money at once, he could personally oversee the construction and make sure that the funds were well spent. Jewett urged the childless Vassar to think of the happiness to be derived from hearing students hail him as “friend and benefactor.”
Vassar weighed the possibilities, balancing the delightful against the disturbing. He couldn’t imagine himself alive and well without his money. Presiding over its disbursement wasn’t the same thing as having it in the bank. There was a world of difference between the late Matthew Vassar, philanthropist and uplifter of half the human race, and Matthew Vassar, Esquire, doling out every one of his dollars to carpenters, bricklayers, teachers, and janitors. The nephews sensed a certain weakening of resolve at this point and intensified their anti-Jewett campaign. The old man changed his mind again. There would be no college. Matthew Vassar, Jr., gleefully relayed the news to Jewett.
Distraught and incredulous, the would-be president of Vassar Female College, borrowing rather freely from Shakespeare, composed his masterpiece of rhetoric: Oh, what a fall was there, my countrymen! Your advisors have razed your magnificent 120 gun ship down to a barge. You give up your coach and six for a wheelbarrow! Your monument which would have been more enduring than the Pyramids is given up for a pine slab at the head of your grave.
Jewett signed his four-page letter “with a heavy heart and trembling hand” and sent it over by messenger. Vassar, whose resistance had been weakened by years of constant importuning, capitulated for the third time. He apologized to Jewett, cursed his nephews, and promised to turn over the necessary funds at once. He and Jewett signed an agreement in the office of a local lawyer. There was an awkward moment later on when Vassar discovered that he would have to turn over the money to a board of trustees. He had not, it seemed, entirely realized what trustees did or what they were for, but upon being assured that it was customary, Vassar reluctantly made over the sum and Jewett “ran to the post office.”
At that safe juncture Jewett relaxed his vigilance. It had been a long grind, and he was utterly exhausted. He told Matthew Vassar that he was going to Europe in order to investigate the state of women’s education abroad and set sail. (Pressed later for his findings, Jewett said that they could “not be imprinted upon paper, but would be transferred by spiritual photography to the minds and hearts and lives of future generations.”)
Intrigue began as soon as Jewett was safely incommunicado on the North Atlantic. Matthew Vassar immediately began receiving urgent advisory letters from another ex-New Englander turned southern schoolmaster—one Charles A. Raymond. Though this man’s academic credentials were not quite as impeccable as Jewett’s, in all other respects the two were eerily similar. Vassar was impressed. The stalwart brewer seems to have had a fatal weakness for refugee schoolmasters, and Raymond’s suggestions grew steadily bolder. There were a few things that Raymond would change if it were his college. He would, for instance, prefer to see a women’s university. There was surely enough money? And land? Matthew Vassar introduced Raymond and Jewett by transatlantic mail, and soon the two of them were corresponding with each other and quarrelling bitterly. The founder remained in the middle, buffeted by letters and pleas from both men. Jewett returned from Europe four months sooner than he had planned. The struggle for the mind and heart of Matthew Vassar could not be conducted from a distance, and Jewett had every reason to think he was losing. He was right. Desperation made him injudicious, and he wrote a peevish letter to six of the trustees, which he concluded with the statement that “Mr. Vassar grows more fickle and childish every day.”