Abstract: Incongruence in Jefferson’s Legacy – The Controversy over the Jefferson Memorial

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial was constructed along the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. between 1938 and 1943. Immediately after the plans for the memorial were first released, there was an uproar from the American people about the design, functionality, and location of the memorial. Historians have argued that Jefferson’s reputation was revived in the 1930s and 1940s, but the inconsistency in the interpretation of Jefferson at the time of the construction of the memorial revealed that Jefferson’s legacy was different to political leaders and the public. The debate over the design and location of the Jefferson Memorial exposed that to the American public, Jefferson’s legacy was as a man of the people, but political elites remembered Jefferson as a hero, representative of American accomplishments and prowess. Through my research, I intend to answer the following questions: How did President Roosevelt, Congress, and the people of Washington discuss the construction of the Jefferson Memorial and what do their discussions reveal about their conception of Thomas Jefferson? What does the reaction to the Jefferson Memorial plans say about the American people’s memory of Jefferson between 1936 and 1945? To answer these questions, I intend to use American newspapers (such as The Washington Post, The Washington Star, St. Louis Dispatch, and The New York Times), The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Congressional documents from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission (TJMC) to investigate the different perspectives on the memorial. The controversy surrounding the construction of the Jefferson Memorial has never been explored by historians, and my project will challenge the idea that Jefferson’s reputation has been consistently favorable since the 1930s.

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