Sept. 15, 2020
The history of the United States is preserved in archives, books, and the collective memory of the American people. It is also preserved in monuments, memorials, and statues made from marble, granite, bronze, or plaster.
Our nation’s capital is home to some of the world’s most recognizable and frequently visited monuments. This blog series will explore the events and people they commemorate, devoting particular attention to the spiritual themes depicted. By shedding light on our nation’s deep religious heritage, this series aims to inspire the next generation to emulate virtues and merits from America’s past that are worth memorializing.
FRC’s blog series on monuments is written by FRC summer interns and edited by David Closson, FRC’s Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview. Be sure to read our previous posts on the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Joan of Arc Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial, the Japanese American Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and the Titanic Memorial.
The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. honors the life and work of Thomas Jefferson—the author of the Declaration of Independence, the first secretary of state, the second vice president, and the third president of the United States. An influential figure in America’s early development, Jefferson was a lifelong advocate for limited government, religious freedom, and public education. Although Jefferson tragically failed to uphold the right of personal liberty of his fellow humans—namely, slaves—throughout his life, Jefferson’s advocacy for religious freedom continues to benefit people of all faiths, backgrounds, and ethnicities today.
Congress created the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission in 1934, nine years before the bicentennial of Jefferson’s birth in 1743. The site of the memorial had been originally intended for Theodore Roosevelt; however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt deeply admired Jefferson and used his influence to secure the site for the Founding Father. In 1935, the commission selected John Russell Pope, one of the nation’s most famous architects committed to the classical tradition, as the architect for the memorial.
Pope’s 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. This design was controversial; many people expressed concern about the possible destruction of the Tidal Basin’s famous cherry trees. These trees had been a gift from the government of Japan in 1912 and were beloved by Washington, D.C.’s residents.
After Pope’s death in 1937, his colleagues Otto R. Eggers and David P. Higgins took over the project. President Roosevelt approved their more modest design, and Congress approved the first part of the $3 million construction cost in 1938. Work began that year and continued throughout World War II. On April 13, 1943, the bicentennial of Jefferson’s birth, President Roosevelt dedicated the completed memorial. To the 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.”
Upon entering the Jefferson Memorial, the visitor will notice at its center the Jefferson statue, standing 19 feet tall atop a black Minnesota granite pedestal inscribed with the dates of Jefferson’s birth and death (1743-1826). The statue is surrounded by columns, quotes from Jefferson, and a coffered ceiling above. Interestingly, when the memorial construction was completed in 1943, there was a shortage of bronze due to World War II. A plaster statue was temporarily erected, to be replaced by a bronze statue in 1947. The statue depicts Jefferson holding the Declaration of Independence in his left hand. The interior of the Jefferson Memorial is comprised of white Georgia marble, the floor of pink Tennessee marble, and the massive dome of Indiana limestone. The dome’s interior is divided into two parts: the lower section has a coffered surface, and the upper section has a smooth, uninterrupted surface.
The architects of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial chose the materials not only for their aesthetic appeal but also for what they each symbolized. The exterior stonework is from Vermont, while the interior walls are from Georgia; this symbolized the geographic extremes of the original 13 colonies—from New England to the Deep South. Inside, the flooring and inner dome material are from Tennessee and Indiana; this symbolizes the expanding Union. The bronze statue of Jefferson stands atop a massive block of Minnesota granite with a gray Missouri marble ring surrounding its base; this symbolizes the impact President Jefferson had with the Louisiana Purchase during his presidency in 1803.
Thomas Jefferson has been closely associated with religious freedom for more than two centuries. The Jefferson Memorial was built to commemorate an esteemed advocate for personal spiritual freedom who believed that religion was a matter of conscience so long as it is not “injurious to others” and that the state should guarantee religious freedom for “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindu, and infidel of every denomination.” Jefferson firmly believed that broad religious freedom and toleration were essential in a nation that was comprised of people from diverse backgrounds.
Today, Christians benefit from Jefferson’s convictions on personal religious freedom. Although Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian himself and is generally understood to have been a deist (i.e., accepting God’s existence but denying supernatural revelation and the deity and miracles of Jesus), Jefferson’s advocacy for religious freedom has helped ease the spread of the gospel. American Christians have an obligation to use the earthly freedom we have to preach spiritual freedom through the gospel. Galatians 5:13 states, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Let us continue to practice the religious liberty that Thomas Jefferson fought to preserve.
Sarah Rumpf is a Development intern at Family Research Council.