A prominent Virginia planter and politician, Jefferson was a key revolutionary leader who wrote the Declaration of Independence and was the chief rival of Alexander Hamilton. He defended individualism, states’ rights, agrarian republicanism, and strict limits on federal power, and was the first secretary of state, the second vice president, and the nation’s third president (1800-1808). His tenure featured the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Tripoli War, and an embargo act to avoid war with Great Britain. He has been praised as a model “enlightened man” for his pioneering work in architecture, education, botany, ethnology, music, and social reform and for his role in the creation of the University of Virginia. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is one of the most striking structures in the heart of the nation’s capital.
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Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s initial idea for a cluster of monuments at the center of the nation’s capital was enhanced by the McMillan Commission, which proposed in 1902 that the White House be the pivot for structures dedicated to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 and the Democrats regained the White House, the new president led the call for building a monument to Jefferson, whom he considered the founder of his political party. In 1934 Congress appointed a Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission chaired by Representative John J. Boylan of New York. The commission selected the Tidal Basin as the site for the memorial since it would close the cluster of monuments formed by the Mall, the White House, and the Lincoln and Washington Memorials. In 1937 the commission accepted a plan drawn by John Russell Pope, based on the Roman Pantheon, for a circular structure with a Greek facade, a Roman dome, and a bronze sculpture of Jefferson at its core.
While Congress quickly approved a three million-dollar allocation to begin the project, the design provoked controversy. Pope’s design was opposed by some who thought it was too elitist or too expensive, or because they wanted a different style of building or a location where fewer cherry trees would be destroyed. The determination of both Pope’s widow and the president brought the initial plans to actuality. Roosevelt held the groundbreaking celebration on December 15, 1938, and the cornerstone was laid eleven months later, after the granite steps and terraces were constructed. It took over two years to build the sides and rotunda and two more years to complete the building. Vermont Imperial Danby marble was used for the exterior, while the interior walls were constructed of Georgia white marble on a flooring of pink Tennessee marble. The domed canopy was composed of Indiana limestone, featuring the Pantheon’s lacunar pattern. A. A. Weinman’s sculptural representation of the members of the Declaration Committee was placed on the facade above the entrance, and the four interior walls surrounding the giant sculpture of Jefferson were etched with quotations from his writings.
After a long competition, in October of 1941 the commission chose the design of Rudolph Evans for the Jefferson sculpture. While a plaster model was used during the dedication in 1943 due to a wartime shortage of metal, the five-ton, nineteen-foot statue (built by the Roman Bronze Company of New York) was installed on April 25, 1947, on a six-foot base of Minnesota granite. The exterior of the monument was restored in 2000.
Born on April 13, 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson inherited five thousand acres and a workforce of slaves in 1757 before attending the College of William and Mary, where Dr. William Small introduced him to the ideas of the Enlightenment. At the age of twenty, he was admitted to the bar, and two years later he was elected to a seat in the House of Burgesses once held by his father. Using the writings of Renaissance architect Palladio, he redesigned his mansion at Monticello and later the Virginia capitol, an octagonal house called Poplar Forest in Lynchburg, and the University of Virginia.
As conflict between Britain and its colonies developed, Jefferson attacked parliamentary authority in a long pamphlet entitled A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774) and later attended the Second Continental Congress. He wrote the Declaration of Independence that proclaimed human rights, political equality, popular sovereignty, and the right of revolution as universal principles. In 1779 he was elected Virginia’s second governor, and soon afterward British forces attacked Monticello. In 1785, he was appointed to a commission that aggressively promoted American exports and published his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia. He also became ambassador to France. Jefferson obtained the passage of both the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the Ordinance of 1784, which proposed that new states be given parity with the original states–a key feature of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Jefferson opposed President John Adams’s policies, and in the presidential election of 1800 he defeated Aaron Burr by eight electoral votes. His inauguration brought the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another through the ballot; it is often called the Revolution of 1800. During his tenure his followers–called “Republicans” and considered the founders of the present Democratic Party–replaced Federalist officeholders, an early example of the spoils system. Advocating democracy, he cut internal taxes, permitted the Alien and Sedition Acts to lapse, and tried to end the national debt. In 1803 he approved the Louisiana Purchase without a constitutional amendment. His reelection was supported by all states except Connecticut and Delaware.
His second term brought a successful conclusion to the Tripoli War (1801-1805) and the Lewis and Clark Expedition through the Louisiana Territory but was troubled by the mysterious Burr conspiracy, British and French violations of American sovereignty, and an Embargo Act that hurt foreign trade but promoted American industrial development. During Jefferson’s second administration, the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, Robert Fulton invented the steamboat, and the importation of slaves to the United States was forbidden.
Jefferson’s appraisal of his life is reflected in his own words, now written on his tombstone: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”
Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and His Times. 6 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948-1981. An exhaustive biography of the man and his many claims to greatness. Peterson, Merrill D. Jefferson Memorial: An Interpretive Guide to the Jefferson Memorial. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1998. A good illustrated introduction to both the man and the monument, by one of his major biographers. Stein, Susan R. The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993. A recent reassessment of Jefferson’s place in history supported by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.