But They Could Not Produce a Poet

Published:June 6, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

As far as I know, Thomas Jefferson was not a poet, although he did disparage other people’s poetry. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote:

Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet.

Jefferson—as my mom might call my dad—was an old goat. And where the African-born American poet Phillis Wheatley was concerned, a real son-of-a-bee. (My mom again.) But not everyone in Jefferson’s day agreed with his assessment, as Vincent Carretta points out in the Public Domain Review (links added):

Notwithstanding the prejudices against her race, social status, gender, and age, Wheatley became the first published woman of African descent in 1767. She gained international recognition with her funeral elegy on the death of the evangelist George Whitefield [see this EV entry—Ed.], addressed to his English patron, the Countess of Huntingdon, and published in Boston and London in 1770. By 1772 Wheatley had written enough poems to enable her to try to capitalize on her growing transatlantic reputation by producing a book of previously published and new works. Unable to find a publisher in Boston, in part because of racial prejudice, Wheatley and her owners successfully sought a London publisher and Huntingdon’s patronage in 1773 for her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

Caretta’s article even includes this pretty cool image of a letter, featured in Wheatley’s book, from her master, John Wheatley, to the English publisher:

How ’bout them apples, Mister Jefferson?

But if TJ was not the author of poetry, he was the subject of the occasional verse. For instance there is “Jefferson’s Daughter,” attributed only to “E.” and published in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1839. It is scandalous in nature, and comes equipped with an epigraph that reminds me, if you’re a New Yorker reader, of a Shouts & Murmurs piece. Anyway, here it is:

“It is asserted, on the authority of an American newspaper, that the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, late President of the United States, was sold at New Orleans for 1000 dollars.”—Morning Chronicle.

Can the blood that at Lexington poured o’er the plain,
When thy son warred with tyrants their rights to uphold—
Can the tide of Niagara wipe out the stain?
No! Jefferson’s child has been bartered for gold!

Do ye boast your freedom? Peace, babblers, be still!
Prate not of the goddess who scarce deigns to hear.
Have ye power to unbind? Are ye wanting in will?
Must the groan of your bondsmen still torture the ear?

The daughter of Jefferson sold for a slave!
The child of a freeman, for dollars and francs!
The roar and applause when your orators rave
Is lost in the sound of her chain as it clanks.

Peace, then, ye blasphemers of Liberty’s name!
Though red was the blood by your forefathers spilt;
Still redder your cheeks should be mantled with shame,
Till the spirit of freedom shall cancel the guilt.

But the brand of the slave is the tint of his skin,
Though his heart may beat loyal and true underneath;
While the soul of the tyrant is rotten within,
And his white the mere cloak to the blackness of death.

Are ye deaf to the plaints that each moment arise?
Is it thus ye forget the mild precepts of Penn—
Unheeding the clamour that “maddens the skies,”
As ye trample the rights of your dark fellow-men?

When the incense that glows before Liberty’s shrine
Is unmix’d with the blood of the gall’d and oppress’d—
Oh! then, and then only, the boast may be thine,
That the stripes and stars wave o’er a land of the blest.

E.

That the author of this poem may have been a fugitive slave—oh, that would have chapped Mr. Jefferson, don’t you think? Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.

IMAGE: A rare signed first edition of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) by Phillis Wheatley, the first book written by an African American. Wheatley’s signature bleeds through on the right hand side.