Last updated: April 10, 2015
Visitors strolling to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial along the Tidal Basin when the cherry trees are in full bloom enjoy a spectacular view. Yet the story behind the scenery and the memorial is filled with turmoil and controversy. Loud protests against the building of the memorial and the removal of the cherished trees resulted in a great battle by several Washingtonians.
In 1912, First Lady Helen Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted the first two Yoshino cherry trees on the north end of the Tidal Basin. Originally there were 3,020 cherry trees of 12 different varieties. These were planted at East Potomac Park, Washington Monument Grounds, and along the Tidal Basin. For Washingtonians, the trees came to symbolize a natural splendor at the center of our nation's capital, adding rich and colorful sights to the city, and something that would be cherished and visited by thousands of visitors for several years.
By 1936, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission was formed and planning got under way for construction. The present-day location at the Tidal Basin was selected in 1937, but indignant public criticism soon followed because building in that location would result in the removal of Japanese flowering cherry trees from the Tidal Basin area. What occurred next was "The Cherry Tree Rebellion." Citizens, clubs, boards, and associations of Washington began a city-wide protest against the destruction of these splendid trees. Eleanor "Cissy" Patterson, the owner and editor of the Washington Times-Herald, published several articles criticizing the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, and organized individuals to take action. On November 17, 1938, the day construction began on the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, 50 women marched on the White House, armed with a petition to stop the damage to the trees. The following day, the same women chained themselves to a tree at the construction site, with hopes to stop the work.
The Cherry Tree Rebellion underway.
A group of approximately 150 women, led by Patterson, seized shovels from workers, re-filled holes, and prepared for a stand-off against workers and bulldozers in order to help save the trees. President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed that Patterson, and other Washington newspapers were exaggerating, and stated that just 88 trees would be destroyed in the construction. Meanwhile, the Washington Post quoted a park official as saying, "For the past two weeks we have been removing trees in the Tidal Basin area for transplanting. None have been chopped down nor will any be." However, in the course of construction, some trees would perish. According to one account, the women were ultimately convinced to stand down after being served lunch by Assistant Secretary of the Interior Michael Strauss. After neverending cups of coffee, the ladies' need for restrooms hastened their decision to remove the chains. Roosevelt then had the rest of the trees removed in the middle of the night to avoid any further conflict.
On December 15, 1938, the groundbreaking ceremony was performed at the site. This was followed by the cornerstone laying ceremony on November 15, 1939. President Roosevelt was in attendance and spoke eloquently about Jefferson and the many facets of his personality. He emphasized that Jefferson's outlook transcended traditional political philosophy, pointing out that Jefferson struggled with the idea of living in between the rule of a chosen few and the opinions and desires of the individual. Ultimately, Jefferson's vision of the individual's self determination ironically led to the rebellion against the removal of the cherry trees.