Thomas Jefferson’s Scrapbooks

Jonathan Gross

Reviewed by Richard Dixon

This is a book you keep on your night stand or on the corner of your desk so that you can pick it up from time to time. That is what you do with a book of poetry. This is a book of Thomas Jefferson’s poetry; not poetry that he wrote, but poems that he collected. For years, four scrapbooks, composed of poems which had been clipped from newspapers and other periodicals were thought to have been compiled by Jefferson’s granddaughters. While visiting Monticello, Jonathan Gross became aware that these scrapbooks were actually compiled by Jefferson. This wonderful book is the result.

Jefferson began the scrapbooks in 1801, and compiled them through his two terms as president. It seems that it was more than a cut-and-paste project, as Jefferson made notes and comments on the poems and rearranged them at times. It is intriguing that this activity would be confined to the time frame of his presidency, but Gross offers no explanation for this.

Jefferson biographers have routinely dismissed his interest in poetry. The only poem definitely attributed to him was “A Death-bed Adieu,” written shortly before his death to his daughter Martha. He did provide an essay, “Thoughts on English Prosody,” in a 1986 letter, which reveals a solid understanding of how poetry is created.

Gross has divided the poems into three sections, the first of which is Poems of Nation. Interestingly, many of these involve the Fourth of July. Not only was it to become a day of celebration of independence, but the day of Jefferson’s death. Next are Poems of Family. Jefferson used poetry often to communicate thoughts and emotions, and many were directed to his grandchildren, who were also encouraged to maintain their own scrapbooks. The third section is Poems of Romantic love, which shows Jefferson’s sentimentality.

Each of the poems is annotated with the author’s explanation, which will reveal Jefferson in ways that a traditional biography cannot. Each section has a Preface which explains the nature of the poems, and places Jefferson’s life in context. There are five appendices which contain a number of short essays that will be interesting even to the serious Jeffersonian.

This is not the standard Jefferson biography. The author calls it an “autobiography of the heart,” and indeed it is.