Jefferson Memorial

Completed 1943, statue added 1947

Architect, John Russell Pope   Sculptor, Rudulph Evans

Today Thomas Jefferson–primary author of the Declaration of Independence, scientist, diplomat, scholar and, almost incidentally, 3rd President of the United States–seems paramount among the forbears we would wish to monumentalize. Yet while monuments to Washington and Lincoln were both begun less than 50 years after their respective deaths, Jefferson’s took more than a century to get going. Indeed, the current site itself was originally earmarked for a monument to Republican Theodore Roosevelt, and was turned instead to Jefferson quite late in the process. Teddy Roosevelt’s memorial was shifted to a nearby island in the Potomac.  Politics, y’know. As the modern National Mall took shape in the early 20th century, after Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats took the reins of government in 1933, they were eager to put someone of their party in the new place of honor, to match the prominent Lincoln Memorial erected in 1922.  Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican.  The Lincoln and Jefferson monuments were built within two decades under governments led by opposing parties. Not surprisingly, there’s a certain competition between the two monuments as well.

The domed, white marble structure of the Jefferson Memorial bears some resemblance to the two buildings most associated with Jefferson, his home Monticello and the rotunda at the core of the University of Virginia campus. Behind that, and perhaps even more influential, is the Roman Pantheon.  The architect of the monument is John Russell Pope, Washington’s “architect of empire” and first recipient of the Rome prize of the recently instituted American Academy in Rome. Pope’s buildings, rather like antiquities in modern Rome, often bear little resemblance or scale with those around them. They bring to the capitol a unique atmosphere of untroubled Olympian grandeur which it still exudes at places.   These grandiose structures embody the high-minded nobility sometimes associated with government service in a slightly less jaded time, while today they are more often overlooked or simply seen as challenges to HVAC systems.  In any case, because they are such laconic, unornamented structures, it’s always fun to watch the patterns made by raindrops as they dry on their vast, blank walls.

Pope’s design borrows (emulates? steals? outdoes?) several features of the Lincoln Memorial. It too inscribes the president’s words on its walls, though now rather misleadingly, as we shall see. It borrows another feature central to Lincoln’s majesty: the vast rows of steps which here actually partly circle the structure. But its chilly, precise classicism is quite different from Henry Bacon’s monument to Lincoln. The Lincoln Memorial has precisely rendered Doric columns and other features derived from classical antiquity, but its façade also adapts the past for modern identity, for instance by carving throughout it the names of American states and date of their entry into the Union. Pope’s Jefferson Memorial, by contrast, is far more of excruciating exactitude to ancient models, hewing to precise details of the Ionic order, its cornice lined with egg-and-dart molding. If Lincoln appears in his monument as a man for all time, Jefferson is presented as something more like a pagan god.

Four panels of quotations from Jefferson’s extensive writings dominate the interior of the rotunda, seemingly emanating directly from the figure they encircle. In fact, they are a selective pastiche, highly edited and often juxtaposing sentences, and even phrases, within the same paragraph. They were chosen by an undersecretary of the Interior, Saul Padover, who had published an adulatory biography of Jefferson in 1942. One panel is devoted solely to the Declaration of Independence, certainly the most important and appropriate text for the monument. Amazingly, as it compresses sections from the preamble and conclusion to the document, it omits five words solely because the architect wanted to save space. But this is just the first intimation that Jefferson may have been cut to fit the monument, rather than vice-versa. James Loewen reads and tracks these quotes in detail, and has pointed out the many selected edits and juxtapositions that make Jefferson sound like an abolitionist and upholder of racial morality and harmony. In fact, he owned two different slave plantations, and was quite intimately involved with the slaves he owned.  To its credit, the historic site of Monticello now acknowledges much more of this matter, including the six children of his slave Sally Hemings who were fathered by Jefferson himself. Loewen concludes “Thomas Jefferson was a great and yet a complex man. The Jefferson Memorial does not do justice to his complexity.”

In fact, the very question of racial conflict and its erasure is inherent in the very site of the Jefferson Memorial, even before considering the monument itself.  It is located at the tidal basin at the edge of the Mall, on land reclaimed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the early 20th century. This location did not first serve as a monument site at all, but, from 1917, as a beach for Washingtonians. For white Washingtonians, that is.  Blacks could swim only in more dangerous, unimproved places, as DC ‘s only public pool at the time was whites-only as well.   In 1925, the Senate, led by senators from Kentucky and Alabama, voted to close the beach entirely rather than consider creating something even less than equal for blacks.   Which opened it up as the place to put a monument.  Here racial conflict is even quite literally buried by the monument.