Stop 8: Thomas Jefferson Memorial - A Place of Controversy

Although Thomas Jefferson advised Pierre L’Enfant on the design of Washington, DC in the early 1790s, he never set foot on the land where his memorial now stands; in fact no one did until nearly a century later. The late 1800s reclamation project transformed the Potomac River mudflats into the Tidal Basin and land that provided the Jefferson Memorial its prominent spot, directly south of the White House. Thomas Jefferson lived in the White House as the Third President of the United States, from 1801 to 1809. He died on July 4th 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

On his gravestone, he requested three accomplishments to be listed: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” Yet he is remembered for many other accomplishments as well.

During his service as President of the United States, he and the Congress negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with France. This added much of the interior land to the United States. Stones from two states, Missouri and Minnesota, that were added to the United States through the Louisiana Purchase were used in the construction of Jefferson’s memorial.

56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial - The Founding Fathers

The Declaration of Independence formed the foundation of the United States as a new, independent country, and these signatures belong to America’s “Founding Fathers.”

A cool geology fact is that the granite blocks used in the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial are from the Cold Springs Quarry in Minnesota. Granite from that part of the country is some of the oldest rock in the world, and forms the stable foundation for the North American continent. Glaciers have scraped off all the younger rocks on top to expose the craton below. This foundation is also called the Canadian Shield.

The signatures, carved into granite blocks at the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial, look just like the original pen and ink signatures of the 56 state representatives on the bottom of the 1776 Declaration of Independence. What was the big deal? They were just signatures, right? Wrong. Thomas Jefferson had actually created a document of treason against the King of England with which every signer of the Declaration of Independence signaled his support.

About Jefferson

Jefferson was described as a philosopher, musician, inventor, writer, naturalist, and architect. His titles included Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice President under John Adams, and President. During his Presidency, the United States doubled in size with the Louisiana Purchase that later was explored by the Lewis and Clark Expedition that Jefferson sponsored.

The Writer

The memorial has many examples of Thomas Jefferson’s writing. Carved into the base of the dome are words from a letter dated September 23, 1800 to Benjamin Rush: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of Man.” On the interior walls are collections of letters and documents, spelled out with bronze letters. The northwest wall text is taken from the 1777 Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, and the last sentence from a letter to James Madison dated August 28, 1789. The northeast wall has excerpts from Jefferson’s book, Notes on the State of Virginia, in 1785, and the two last sentences from a letter to George Washington dated January 4, 1786. The southeast wall text comes from a letter written to Samuel Kercheval dated July 12, 1816. And on the southwest wall of the memorial are some of the words from the 1776 Declaration of Independence. Since this latter is by far Jefferson’s most famous and important document, you can find references to the Declaration of Independence in other parts of the memorial as well. Take a look at the statue. In Jefferson’s left hand is a rolled up document, possibly the Declaration of Independence. There is also a scene, carved by Adolph Weinman into the Pediment, that shows all the members of the Declaration Committee: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and of course, the principal author Thomas Jefferson.

The Naturalist

Jefferson’s home was a small museum full of rocks, plants, animals, maps, charts, and drawings of new places to explore. He loved to survey the land, watch things grow, and find explanations for natural phenomena. His love of scientific discovery led to the Lewis and Clark expedition, yet he had to persuade Congress that it was primarily a trade motivated project. At home, Jefferson was a horticulturist, finding the best way to grow flowers and trees and large gardens of fruit and vegetables. If you look at the back of the statue, you can see how Rudulph Evans sculpted corn and tobacco plants to decorate columns that poke out from under Jefferson’s long cloak. The statue’s pedestal stone comes from Minnesota and Missouri, both areas that became part of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase.

The Architect

The designer of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, John Russell Pope, used a classical architectural style very close to the design of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy. Columns, arches, and domes were also used by Thomas Jefferson in buildings that he designed. The University of Virginia, the Virginia Capitol building in Richmond, his own home (Monticello), and his rejected designs for the White House and Capitol in Washington, D.C., all look very classical, and most of them have domes.

Even with all these accomplishments, Jefferson was, and still is, seen as a controversial figure. He wrote “all men are created equal” at the same time he owned slaves. In his lifetime, he wrote that slavery was wrong, but he still found himself wrapped up in the Virginian Plantation lifestyle. Can you think of anything in our time that people know is not right, yet continue to do?

How does the Thomas Jefferson Memorial tell the story of controversy through its construction?


Jefferson Construction

Ground was broken December 15, 1938, the cornerstone was laid November 15, 1939, and the memorial was dedicated on the 200th Anniversary of Jefferson’s birth, April 13, 1943.

You will find metamorphic, igneous, and sedimentary rocks at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, but most of the rocks are metamorphic. Compare the color and texture of all the different marble and think of all the different limestone that they came from.


The walls, steps, columns, and exterior dome are all made of Imperial Danby Marble from Vermont.


Starting from the ground, moving up, you will find a floor of pink Tennessee marble, inside walls of white Georgia marble, and a domed ceiling of Indiana Limestone. The bronze statue of Jefferson stands on a pedestal of black granite from Minnesota, ringed with gray Missouri marble on the floor.

Some of the building stones are from states that were not yet a part of the United States when Jefferson became President in 1801. When Jefferson and Congress authorized the Louisiana Purchase, the United States bought land from France. Which stones came from part of the Louisiana Purchase?


Bronze is not a type of rock; it is a man-made combination of the metals tin and copper. The hollow, 19-foot tall statue is made from 5 tons of bronze. Did you know that the statue at the dedication ceremony in 1943 was made of plaster, painted to look like it was bronze? When the Thomas Jefferson Memorial was under construction, the United States was involved in World War II. Most projects that did not directly benefit the war effort were put on hold, and Americans were asked to donate scraps of metal to help make airplanes, tanks, and bullets. The country couldn’t afford to pour all that metal into a statue at that time, but the dedication date was importatnt because it marked Jefferson’s 200th Birthday. The plaster statue was replaced with the five-ton bronze statue after the war, in the spring of 1947.


Jefferson Controversy

Most of the construction of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial occurred while the United States was involved in World War Two. While buildings across the oceans were destroyed, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was determined to continue building a monument to his hero.

If spending millions of dollars to construct a memorial while the country was at war wasn’t controversial enough, FDR also several trees cleared between the memorial site and the White House, including many of the famous cherry trees. This helped him keep an eye on the construction and let FDR --along with every President afterwards-- have a clear view of the finished memorial. At the same time, the statue in the Thomas Jefferson Memorial has a great view of both the home of the current President, and the monument to the First President, George Washington.

Continue Your Tour of the National Mall

Stop 1: The Geology of the Washington D.C. Area

Stop 2: The History of Washington D.C.

Stop 3: Finding D.C.’s Foundation

Stop 4: A Watery Past

Stop 5: GeoStory of the Lincoln Memorial

Stop 6: Remembering War

Stop 7: Stories in Stone at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Stop 8: Thomas Jefferson Memorial - A Place of Controversy

Stop 9: Washington Monument - The Nation’s Most Unique Rock Collection

Stop 10: Who Cares for the National Mall







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