National Mall and Memorial Parks | THOMAS JEFFERSON MEMORIAL

Jefferson Memorial

Jefferson Memorial

Talks of a memorial to Thomas Jefferson began in 1926, though it wasn’t until 1934 that Congress established the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission and authorized funding. Architect John Russell Pope was hired to design the memorial. He had designed many buildings around Washington, including the National Archives building.

The original location of the memorial was to be at the intersection of Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues near the Capitol. However, Pope’s design proved to be too large for the spot, and President Franklin Roosevelt gave the Commission the authority to pick another location. The idea came about to put the memorial in a straight line of sight south of the White House, which meant that it had to be somewhere near the Tidal Basin, a popular recreation area that was created in the late 1800s. With the White House to the north, the Lincoln Memorial to the west, the U. S. Capitol to the east, and the Washington Monument in the center, the Jefferson Memorial would be the final piece in a cross of iconic Washington, D. C., buildings and monuments.

After contemplating building an island in the middle of the Tidal Basin, it was decided to place the memorial on the southern shore. The optimal alignment would have put the Washington Monument directly in the center, but that would have situated the Jefferson Memorial on terrain that was too soft to build on at the time, so its location was shifted slightly to the west. As it turned out, the ground where it was eventually built was too soft as well, and the monument has had settlement issues since Day One.

View of the Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin from the Inlet Bridge

View of the Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin from the Inlet Bridge

Modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial is a neo-classical structure with a circular dome held up by twenty-six columns. Twelve additional columns support a north-facing portico. The columns, walls, and floor are all made of marble; the staircase is constructed from a combination of granite and marble; and the dome is made from limestone. A statue of Jefferson stands under cover of the dome in a 165-foot diameter memorial chamber.

West side of the Jefferson Memorial shows the dome and supporting columns

West side of the Jefferson Memorial shows the dome and supporting columns

Jefferson statue inside the memorial chamber

Jefferson statue inside the memorial chamber

Pope ended up dying of cancer in August 1937, and Otto Eggers and Daniel Higgins, two of his associates, took over the project. Construction began in November 1938, though the ceremonial cornerstone laid by President Roosevelt was not placed until a year later. Inside the cornerstone are a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, a ten volume Writings of Thomas Jefferson compiled by Paul Leicester Ford, a copy of Jefferson’s The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, and a copy of each of the top four Washington newspapers of the day.

It wasn’t until 1941 that sculptor Rudolph Evans was hired for the Jefferson sculpture. He had entered and won a design competition that was held a few year earlier. His 19-foot tall statue depicts Jefferson at middle age looking towards the White House while holding a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson statue

Thomas Jefferson statue

There is a second sculpture on the memorial, though it is certainly not as prominent as Evan’s Jefferson statue. In the triangular pediment that is the main focus of the memorial’s portico is a relief sculpture of five members of the Declaration of Independence Drafting Committee submitting their proposal to Congress. In addition to Jefferson, the men are John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Benjamin Franklin. The sculpture was done by Adolph Winman, a runner-up in the sculpture design competition.

Drafting Committee sculpture on the portico

Drafting Committee sculpture on the portico

Inside the monument, the statue of Jefferson is surrounded by some of his most famous quotes, which are engraved into the four walls of the otherwise open memorial. On the southwest wall is an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men. We… solemnly publish and declare, that these colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states… And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

An excerpt from the Declaration of Independence

An excerpt from the Declaration of Independence

The southeast wall is inscribed with an excerpt from a Jefferson letter written in 1816 to Samuel Kercheval, a lawyer friend from Virginia:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

On the northeast wall is an excerpt that combines a few lines from Jefferson’s A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1777, which resulted in the abolishment of a state church in Virginia, and a line from a letter he wrote to James Madison in 1789:

Almighty God hath created the mind free…All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens…are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion…No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.

The northwest wall contains quotes from six different sources, though from the way it is engraved it appears to be from one source:

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than these people are to be free. Establish the law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state to effect and on a general plan.

The Jefferson Memorial was dedicated on April 13, 1943, Jefferson’s 200th birthday. President Roosevelt presided over the ceremonies. The only part of the memorial not completed at the time was the statue of Jefferson. Due to restrictions on using metal during World War II, Evans had to install a plaster casting that was painted to look like bronze. This was replaced with the final bronze casting in 1947.

There is more to the Jefferson Memorial than meets the eye, as an entire lower level is accessible by elevator for those who notice a door near the Jefferson statue. One floor is closed to the public, but the lowest floor contains a gift store, restrooms, and a small museum that focuses on the life on Jefferson, not the memorial. For information on the memorial and its construction, there is an information station at the statue level where you can pick up a park brochure.

Museum on the bottom floor of the Jefferson Memorial

Museum on the bottom floor of the Jefferson Memorial

The Jefferson Memorial has a great view of the Washington Monument, and if you have good eyes, the White House as well.

Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument

Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument

View of the Washington Monument from the Jefferson Memorial

View of the Washington Monument from the Jefferson Memorial

During the summer, paddle boats are available for rent from a concessionaire located near the memorial. For more information, visit the Tidal Basin website.

Paddle boats on the Tidal Basin

Paddle boats on the Tidal Basin

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is open year-round, 24 hours a day. Park Rangers are on hand from 9:30 AM to 10 PM to answer questions (except for Christmas day). The National Park Service offers daily programs that rotate throughout the memorials on the Mall. To find out what sort of activities are going on when you visit, see the National Park Service’s Calendar web page for the National Mall and Memorial Parks.

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Last updated on April 27, 2020
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