The Jefferson Memorial

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11851

What would you most like to be remembered for? Find out which president was impressed by another so much, he built a memorial to him in Washington, D.C., for his 200th birthday! Join the virtual tour!


United States

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5), Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Which U.S. president was one of Thomas Jefferson's greatest admirers, and worked to celebrate Jefferson's legacy with a memorial in Washington, D.C.?

Throughout this series, Let's Explore Washington D.C.!, you have been learning about many of the recognizable monuments and buildings in Washington, D.C.

If you overlooked or need to review the previous lessons, you can find them in the right-hand sidebar under Related Lessons.

In this lesson, you will study the history of the Jefferson Memorial and take a virtual field trip to explore the historic site.

The Jefferson Memorial would never have come to fruition if not for the admiration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR). In 1934, FDR proposed building a memorial in honor of Thomas Jefferson somewhere in the nation's capital. Soon after, many other prominent government leaders began supporting FDR's proposal. This overflow of support for the memorial prompted Congress to create the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission to oversee the design and construction of the memorial, and John Russell Pope was hired to be the lead architect on the project.

The first order of business was selecting the location. Four locations were proposed and, ultimately, a location directly south of the White House, next to the Tidal Basin, was selected. The Commission liked the site south of the White House because, out of the four options presented, this location would receive the most attention. In addition, placing the Jefferson Memorial in this location completed a four-point plan around the National Mall. The Lincoln Memorial and Capitol building stand at opposite ends of the Mall, and Congress wanted another memorial stationed directly across from the White House to create four points. Find each of these locations on the map below. Explain to your teacher or parent how they create four points:

National Mall map

Image by Peter Fitzgerald, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported license.

After a location was selected, Pope was charged with designing what the memorial would look like. Pope chose to incorporate Roman influences like most other prominent buildings on the National Mall that incorporate Greek and Roman architecture. He designed a pantheon structure, like the circular temples used in ancient Rome, that would sit atop a square platform. The dome shape and Roman influences modeled many of Jefferson's own architectural accomplishments. Compare the images of the Jefferson Memorial and Monticello (below), Jefferson's home in Virginia that he designed. What elements from Monticello did Pope incorporate into his design for the memorial? Tell your teacher or parent:

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Construction began in December, 1938. FDR laid the cornerstone, or the first stone used in the construction, and dedicated the memorial in 1934 on what would have been Jefferson's 200th birthday. At the time of the dedication, the memorial was not complete. World War II had created shortages of many of the supplies needed to complete the memorial, particularly the bronze needed to create the statue of Jefferson. So, at the dedication, plaster was used to create a statue of Jefferson. The plaster was painted to resemble bronze. The memorial was officially completed in 1947 when the real bronze statue was installed. The Jefferson Memorial was a beloved project of FDR. Before his passing in 1945, he had the trees around the memorial cut down so he could see it from the White House.

Today, the Jefferson Memorial remains a symbol of one of America's greatest presidents. Surrounding the bronze statue of Jefferson, the words from several of his most famous documents have been engraved in the marble walls. You can find excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, a Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, and several of Jefferson's minor works.

Before moving on to the Got It? section, discuss the following questions with your teacher or parent:

  • Why do you think President Roosevelt wanted to play such an active role in the construction of a memorial for President Jefferson?
  • What contributions did Thomas Jefferson make to American government that make him worthy of a large memorial in Washington, D.C.?

To get a closer look at the Jefferson Memorial and all of its parts, move on to the Got It? section.

Consider exploring the Elephango lessons in the right-hand sidebar under Additional Resources to learn more about the presidents mentioned in this lesson.

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