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Thomas Jefferson Was a Poet, and We Didn’t Even Know It

April marks National Poetry Month, and poets and lovers of poetry everywhere unite, recite and delight in the art and those who have created it. Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson and Ogden Nash are just a few of the notable lyricists from the United States. Although mostly known for other things, like running the country, even several of the nation’s presidents tried their hand at writing stanzas.

Thomas Jefferson, a philosopher, a patriote [sic], and a friend Exterior of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Thomas Jefferson was renowned for being many things: third president of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, father of the University of Virginia, founding father of the nation and the Library of Congress, respected scholar and prolific inventor. So, it should come as no surprise that he was also a poet, or, at the very least, a poetry lover who dabbled a bit on the side.

Other presidents who labored over the almighty verse were Abraham Lincoln, James Madison and Jimmy Carter. The Digital Reference Team of the Library of Congress has put together a guide to the Library’s poetry resources, including one that highlights presidents as poets.

The month of April marks many other auspicious occasions, particularly for the Library of Congress. On April 13, 1743, Jefferson was born. The Library was founded on April 24, 1800.

As a man who stated he could not live without books, Jefferson took a keen interest in the Library and its collection while he was president of the United States from 1801 to 1809. In fact he approved the first law defining the role and functions of the new institution, including the creation of the post of Librarian of Congress. When the British army invaded the city of Washington and burned the Capitol, including the 3,000-volume Library of Congress, Jefferson sold his personal library of 6,487 volumes to replace what had been lost.

The Poetry and Literature Center of the Library of Congress was established in the 1940s and has been almost exclusively supported since 1951 by a gift from the late Gertrude Clarke Whittall, who wanted to bring the appreciation of good literature to a larger audience. The center administers several prestigious prizes in poetry and also sponsors an active series of public poetry and fiction readings, lectures, symposia, occasional dramatic performances and other literary events.

To see what made history on any day in April, visit Today in History, a Web site that offers a wealth of fascinating information from the historical collections of the Library of Congress.

A. Thomas Jefferson, a philosopher, a patriote [sic], and a friend. SUMMARY: Thomas Jefferson, bust portrait, right profile, wearing laurel crown. ca.1800–1816. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction Nos.: LC-USZC4-7084 (color film copy transparency), LC-USZ62-23011 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: PGA - Sokolnicki--Thomas Jefferson (A size) [P&P]

B. Exterior of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C. Photo by Lisa Whittle. Reproduction Information: Not available for reproduction.