President Thomas Jefferson and Poetry

Updated on October 22, 2019
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Expository essay writing in history, philosophy, politics, and spirituality keeps the mind sharp and satisfies its thirst for knowledge.

Thomas Jefferson

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in 1800
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in 1800 | Source

Introduction and Brief Life Sketch

"… it seemed as if from his youth he had placed his mind, as he has done his house, on an elevated situation, from which he might contemplate the universe." —The Marquis de Chastellux.

The above quotation from the French nobleman who visited American from 1780-1782 provides a useful focus for understanding the nature of the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson even wrote an essay focusing on the topic of English poetry, titled "Thoughts on English Prosody."

Childhood

Thomas Jefferson was born to Peter and Jane Randolph Jefferson April 13, 1743, in Albemarle County, Virginia, where his family owned a plantation. As a youth, Jefferson liked to explore the wilderness area surrounding his family’s plantation. He also enjoyed reading.

Jefferson attended a boarding school; later he attended William and Mary College, where he took courses in science and math, in addition to philosophy and law. He was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767.

Adulthood

Jefferson dedicated himself to working for his country’s independence from England, and politics became his life and vocation. He served in the Continental Congress and wrote the Declaration of Independence 1775-1776.

Jefferson also served as governor of Virginia during the war for independence and later served as minister to France. Upon his return from France, he became secretary of state under George Washington.

Jefferson’s father left him a considerable estate, on which Jefferson built his now famous Monticello. He married Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow who also had inherited a sizable plantation. Thomas and Martha had six children, of which only two lived to adulthood. They were married only a decade before Martha died.

The Third President of the USA

Jefferson’s presidency from 1801 to 1809 was the first to begin and be completed in the White House, which was then called the Presidential Mansion. Probably the most significant, although unconstitutional, act of President Thomas Jefferson was his purchase of the Louisiana Territory, which doubled the size of the United States. He also commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition that explored the northwestern portion of the United States.

Jefferson’s political philosophy included a strong belief in states and individual rights. He was wary of judges, but ironically, it was during his presidency that the Supreme Court gained power to interpret the Constitution. Jefferson was a humble man but gifted in self-expression, as the first two sentences of his first inaugural address attest:

Called upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country, I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow-citizens which is here assembled to express my grateful thanks for the favor with which they have been pleased to look toward me, to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire. A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye—when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue, and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking.

Death

Jefferson died at his home on the Monticello estate on July 4, 1826—a few hours before the second president John Adams died at his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts. This date marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson's Presidency and Poetry

Thomas Jefferson remarked that he could not live without books. Thus, it is fitting that under his presidency the Library of Congress was created. He became responsible for approving the statute that defined the function of the library; he also created the position of Librarian of Congress. After the British invaded Washington, D.C. on August 24, 1814, and burned the Capitol, the White House, and the newly formed Library of Congress, Jefferson at great personal cost to himself replaced the nearly 3,000 volume acquisition of the library.

The third president appreciated poetry, read widely and quoted famous poets, including Homer, Vergil, Dryden, and Milton. Jefferson even wrote an essay focusing on the topic of English poetry, titled "Thoughts on English Prosody." In his teen years, Jefferson took up the habit of keeping a scrapbook of poems featured in newspapers. He even encouraged his granddaughters to keep such poetry scrapbooks.

Like John Adams, no poems by Thomas Jefferson have survived. Also like John Adams several poetry tributes to the third president do exist. Lorine Niedecker's "Thomas Jefferson" was featured by the Poetry Foundation in December 2017:

Thomas Jefferson

I
My wife is ill!
And I sit
waiting
for a quorum

II
Fast ride
his horse collapsed
Now he saddled walked

Borrowed a farmer’s
unbroken colt
To Richmond

Richmond How stop—
Arnold’s redcoats
there

III
Elk Hill destroyed—
Cornwallis
carried off 30 slaves

Jefferson:
Were it to give them freedom
he’d have done right

IV
Latin and Greek
my tools
to understand
humanity

I rode horse
away from a monarch
to an enchanting
philosophy

V
The South of France

Roman temple
“simple and sublime”

Maria Cosway
harpist
on his mind

white column
and arch

VI
To daughter Patsy: Read—
read Livy

No person full of work
was ever hysterical

Know music, history
dancing

(I calculate 14 to 1
in marriage
she will draw
a blockhead)

Science also
Patsy

VII
Agreed with Adams:
send spermaceti oil to Portugal
for their church candles

(light enough to banish mysteries?:
three are one and one is three
and yet the one not three
and the three not one)

and send salt fish
U.S. salt fish preferred
above all other

VIII
Jefferson of Patrick Henry
backwoods fiddler statesman:

“He spoke as Homer wrote”
Henry eyed our minister at Paris—

the Bill of Rights hassle—
“he remembers . . .

in splendor and dissipation
he thinks yet of bills of rights”

IX
True, French frills and lace
for Jefferson, sword and belt

but follow the Court to Fontainebleau
he could not—

house rent would have left him
nothing to eat

. . .

He bowed to everyone he met
and talked with arms folded

He could be trimmed
by a two-month migraine

and yet
stand up

X
Dear Polly:
I said No—no frost

in Virginia—the strawberries
were safe

I’d have heard—I’m in that kind
of correspondence

with a young daughter—
if they were not

Now I must retract
I shrink from it

XI
Political honors
“splendid torments”
“If one could establish
an absolute power
of silence over oneself”

When I set out for Monticello
(my grandchildren
will they know me?)

How are my young
chestnut trees—

XII
Hamilton and the bankers
would make my country Carthage

I am abandoning the rich—
their dinner parties—

I shall eat my simlins
with the class of science

or not at all
Next year the last of labors

among conflicting parties
Then my family

we shall sow our cabbages
together

XIII
Delicious flower
of the acacia

or rather

Mimosa Nilotica
from Mr. Lomax

XIV
Polly Jefferson, 8, had crossed
to father and sister in Paris

by way of London—Abigail
embraced her—Adams said

“in all my life I never saw
more charming child”

Death of Polly, 25,
Monticello

XV
My harpsichord
my alabaster vase
and bridle bit
bound for Alexandria
Virginia

The good sea weather
of retirement
The drift and suck
and die-down of life
but there is land

XVI
These were my passions:
Monticello and the villa-temples
I passed on to carpenters
bricklayers what I knew

and to an Italian sculptor
how to turn a volute
on a pillar

You may approach the campus rotunda
from lower to upper terrace
Cicero had levels

XVII
John Adams’ eyes
dimming
Tom Jefferson’s rheumatism
cantering

XVIII
Ah soon must Monticello be lost
to debts
and Jefferson himself
to death

XIX
Mind leaving, let body leave
Let dome live, spherical dome
and colonnade

Martha (Patsy) stay
“The Committee of Safety
must be warned”

Stay youth—Anne and Ellen
all my books, the bantams
and the seeds of the senega root

Narrative poet, Stephen Vincent Benét, has also contributed to the literary canon with a tribute poem to Jefferson:

Thomas Jefferson

1743-1826

Thomas Jefferson,
What do you say
Under the gravestone
Hidden away?

"I was a giver,
I was a molder,
I was a builder
With a strong shoulder."

Six feet and over,
Large-boned and ruddy,
The eyes grey-hazel
But bright with study.

The big hands clever
With pen and fiddle
And ready, ever,
For any riddle.

From buying empires
To planting 'taters,
From Declarations
To trick dumb-waiters.

"I liked the people,
The sweat and crowd of them,
Trusted them always
And spoke aloud or them.

"I liked all learning
And wished to share it
Abroad like pollen
For all who merit.

"I liked fine houses
With Greek pilasters,
And built them surely,
My touch a master's.

"I liked queer gadgets
And secret shelves,
And helping nations
To rule themselves.

"Jealous of others?
Not always candid?
But huge of vision
And open-handed.

"A wild-goose-chaser?
Now and again,
Build Monticello,
You little men!

"Design my plow, sirs,
They use it still,
Or found my college
At Charlottesville.

"And still go questing
New things and thinkers,
And keep as busy
As twenty tinkers.

"While always guarding
The people's freedom
You need more hands, sir?
I didn't need 'em.

"They call you rascal?
They called me worse.
You'd do grand things, sir,
But lack the purse?

"I got no riches.
I died a debtor.
I died free-hearted
And that was better.

"For life was freakish
But life was fervent,
And I was always
Life's willing servant.

"Life, life's too weighty?
Too long a haul, sir?
I lived past eighty.
I liked it all, sir."

Thomas Jefferson' greatest poem, of course, remains the Declaration of Independence, a document that stands unparalleled in its assistance in the birth of the United States of America.

Sources


Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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