When people invoke the great speeches of Congresses past, they often imagine the studied structure of Henry Clay of Kentucky, or the righteous oratory of Robert Elliott of South Carolina, or the witticisms of Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine. The House has counted many accomplished public speakers among its ranks, including would-be poets like John Quincy Adams, who earned the nickname “Old Man Eloquent” during his storied 17-year career in Congress.
Adams was far from alone in his iambic aspirations. Several Members of Congress published volumes of poetry either before or after their service in Congress, some as stand-alone volumes and others as part of edited collections. Orleans Territorial Delegate Julien de Lallande Poydras boasted having written the “first poetical work printed in Louisiana in 1779.” John Steven McGroarty of California served two years as his state's poet laureate before winning election to Congress in 1935. Five-term Kentucky Representative Maurice Hudson Thatcher even published his life story under the straightforward title Autobiography in Poetry.
Lyrical poetry has also found its way into American political campaigns. While today’s political candidates tend to select songs with lyrics to match their campaign’s themes, older campaigns took a more writerly approach. Campaign songs in the nineteenth century typically borrowed a tune or meter from a poem or rhyme popular at the time, repurposing them with patriotic sentiment and plenty of praise for the candidate of choice.
This Edition for Educators celebrates the tradition of poetry in all its forms in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Congressman and Poet John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts
A man of many talents, Congressman John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts was a poet as well as a statesman. On April 16, 1831, while serving in the 22nd Congress (1831–1833), Adams penned the epic poem, “Dermot MacMorrogh, or The Conquest of Ireland.” Adams once confessed, “Could I have chosen my own genius and condition, I should have made myself a great poet.”
The Annual House Page Banquet at the Mayflower Hotel
On July 25, 1937, the House Pages met at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, for a banquet sponsored by Representative Joseph B. Shannon of Missouri. First organized in 1932, Shannon’s gala—which featured a variety of activities such as poetry readings and music—honored the House’s Pages and became an annual event during his six terms in office.
A Joint Meeting to Celebrate the Birth of President Dwight D. Eisenhower
On March 27, 1990, Congress celebrated the centennial of the birth of President Dwight D. Eisenhower with a Joint Meeting. The two-hour ceremony included speeches, performances by military bands, and a poetry reading. Both Democrats and Republicans wore “I Like Ike” buttons to show their appreciation for the World War II hero and popular two-term President.
Original Text of Political Poems and Songs
Political campaigns in the nineteenth century frequently featured original (or broadly customized) songs and poetry written to drum up support and generate excitement for candidates. These selected poems referenced in the first essay of Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822–2012 demonstrate the campaign tactics and themes of New Mexican Delegates Miguel Antonio Otero and Mariano Sabino Otero as well as Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Luis Muñoz Rivera.
Many Representatives have found ways to fold their love of the poetic arts into their Congressional service. In the modern era, two Members of Congress proposed legislation supporting poetry half a century apart.
Nan Wood Honeyman of Oregon
A close friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and diehard New Deal supporter, Representative Nan Wood Honeyman of Oregon brought an eclectic set of interests to Washington. The first woman to represent Oregon on Capitol Hill, Honeyman had studied music at the Finch School in New York City, but she also had poetry in her blood; her father Charles Erskine Scott Wood was a popular American author and poet. In 1937, Honeyman proposed a national poetry award to bring the United States in line with practices in Europe that prioritized artistic expression. “I think that we could well emulate some of these old nations in the recognition of the arts,” she said. Members of the Library Committee, however, balked at the annual appropriation Honeyman intended to accompany the award, and the proposal withered.
Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii
Nearly 50 years later, Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii had considerably more luck passing legislation to officially recognize the achievements of American poets. A poetry enthusiast, Matsunaga once composed an impromptu haiku during a congressional luncheon with the Prime Minister of Japan. Like Honeyman, Matsunaga felt the country lagged European nations in its respect for the arts. Following his election to the Senate, Matsunaga proposed a bill creating the office of the United States Poet Laureate in the Library of Congress. “It is my hope that the work of the future poet laureate . . . will also reflect our Nation’s great diversity—its multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial heritage, its strength and compassion, and its democratic idealism,” Matsunaga said shortly before the bill passed by voice vote in 1985.
Singing for Equal Access
In her oral history, the Honorable Mary Rose Oakar remembers when she and Representatives Barbara Boxer and Marcy Kaptur used music to make a case for equal access to the House Gym.
An Ode to Poetry at the Capitol
During a Joint Meeting honoring the bicentennial of Congress in 1989, Republican Leader Robert Michel of Illinois suggested that what Congress needed during the celebration was “not more congressional prose, but the fiery, living truth of great poetry.”
The Last Will and Testament of a Lame Duck
Just one week after the Twentieth Amendment was ratified, Representative Ruth Bryan Owen of Florida poked fun at her own predicament. Self-described as “the first Bryan who ran for anything and got it” (a glib reference to her father William Jennings Bryan’s three failed attempts at winning the Presidency), Owen lost the Republican nomination to her eastern Florida seat in June 1932. As the 72nd Congress (1931–1933) drew to a close, she composed a comic poem entitled “The Last Will and Testament of a Lame Duck,” and read it before a luncheon at the National Women's Press Club, on January 31, 1933.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory