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3rd President of the United States, 1801-1809
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Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Washington, DC

The Jefferson Memorial at night
Jefferson Memorial illuminated at dusk
by Dan Ng
National Park Service

The serene classical Thomas Jefferson Memorial National Memorial honors the third president’s ideals of beauty, science, learning, culture, and liberty.  Jefferson truly was a Renaissance man.  He was fluent in six languages:  Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, and Anglo-Saxon.  He spent much time studying the natural sciences, ethnology, archaeology, agriculture, and meteorology.  Jefferson was also a gifted architect, America’s first, according to some scholars.  As American minister to France, he developed a love for the beauties of Classical architecture, as evidenced by two of his famous creations, Monticello and the University of Virginia. He almost single-handedly introduced the Neoclassical style to this country.  It is entirely appropriate that the memorial built in his honor should be based on the Pantheon in Rome, which he loved. 

Jefferson made his chief contributions to the history of the United States in the realm of political theory.  Jefferson was a life-long advocate for government as the servant of the people, for religious freedom and the separation of Church and State, and for education for all.   Jefferson’s faith in the educated common man and his ability to use his liberties wisely has been a constant in American political life.  His statement in an 1800 letter to his friend Benjamin Rush, engraved on the frieze encircling the interior of the memorial, captures the essence of his political philosophy:


In 1901, the McMillan Commission called for two new memorials in Washington’s monumental core.  They both would be on land reclaimed from the Potomac River.  One was to lie at the west end of a line beginning at the Capitol and passing through the Washington Monument.  The second would be at the end of a line extending south from the White House.  Completed in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial occupied the first location.  The Thomas Jefferson Memorial eventually occupied the second.  Its dedication in 1943 finally added a southern “compass point” to the McMillan Commission’s grand composition for the core area of the nation’s Capital park system.

Thomas Jefferson National Memorial
Thomas Jefferson National Memorial
National Park Service

Congress created the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission in 1934, nine years before the bicentennial of Jefferson’s birth in 1743.  The commission considered a number of locations before selecting the present one next to the Tidal Basin.  In 1935, the commission selected John Russell Pope as the architect for the memorial.  Pope already had designed the National Archives Building and Constitution Hall and was working on the National Gallery of Art.  He was probably the nation’s most famous classicist.  His original design called for a huge building and the transformation of the Tidal Basin into a series of reflecting pools, rectangular terraces, and formal rows of trees.  The design was controversial.  Many people expressed concern about the possible destruction of the Tidal Basin’s famous cherry trees.  Architects and artists who favored Modern architecture denounced the building as a “senile sham” and a “cold mausoleum imitation of imperial Rome.”  After Pope’s death in 1937, his colleagues Otto R. Eggers and David P. Higgins took over the project.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the final, more modest design, and Congress voted the first part of the $3 million construction cost in 1938.  Work began that year and continued through World War II.  On April 13, 1943, the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the completed memorial.  To 5,000 spectators and a radio audience of millions, Roosevelt proclaimed, “Today in the midst of a great war for freedom, we dedicate a shrine to freedom.” 

The circular, open-air memorial is 165 feet in diameter, with an exterior made of Vermont Imperial Danby marble.  The design of the shallow dome clearly refers to the dome of the Pantheon.  The 54 Ionic columns surrounding the building permit a clear view of the interior from all four sides.  A portico with eight Ionic columns forms the main entrance.  An Adolph A. Weinman sculptural group in the pediment shows Jefferson and his colleagues presenting their draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress.

Rudulph Evans' bronze statue of Jefferson dominates the white marble interior of the memorial. The Memorial Commission chose Evans’ design from among 101 entries in a nationwide competition.  It shows Jefferson in midlife, wearing a waistcoat, knee breeches, and a long, fur-collared coat. In his left hand, he holds what is believed to be the Declaration of Independence.  At the dedication in 1943, the statue was made of plaster.  The bronze version had to wait until wartime restrictions on the use of metals ended. The statue is 19 feet in height and stands on a 6-foot pedestal of black Minnesota granite.

Four quotation blocks drawn from several of Jefferson's writings, in addition to the personal credo quoted above, adorn the interior of the memorial and illustrate some of the principles to which he dedicated his life.  The quotation on the southwest wall comes from the Declaration of Independence.  A statement on the evolution of law and the Constitution, taken from an 1816 letter to Samuel Kercheval, is on the southeast wall.  The northeast panel contains selections dealing with the evils of slavery and the need for education, taken from his Summary View of the Rights of British America of 1774, his 1784 Notes on the State of Virginia, and 1780s letters to George Wythe and George Washington.  On the northwest wall stands the fourth panel, expressing Jefferson's commitment to freedom of religion. This quotation is from his 1779 Statute for Religious Freedom, adopted by Virginia in 1786, with the last sentence coming from a 1789 letter to James Madison.

Plan your visit

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial National Memorial, a unit of the National Park System, is located in West Potomac Park. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text.  The monument is free and open to the public 24 hours a day.  Park rangers are on duty to answer questions from 9:30am to 11:30pm daily.  For more information, visit the National Park Service Thomas Jefferson Memorial National Memorial website.  The Thomas Jefferson Memorial and nearby Tidal Basin are especially picturesque during Washington’s annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.  The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is featured in the National Park Service Washington, DC Travel Itinerary.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey

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