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This Day in History: The controversial Jefferson Memorial

On this day in 1939, a cornerstone is laid for the Jefferson Memorial. Statues of America’s third President have become controversial in recent months because Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. But did you know that his Memorial was controversial when it was built, too?

The disputes were completely different back then, of course. Yet they were still very real. People even chained themselves to trees, trying to prevent the project from getting started.

Controversy had been brewing for years. How could Jefferson best be honored? Perhaps a memorial could be built near the Declaration of Independence, in the National Archives. Or perhaps a national university could be built. Or what if a national auditorium were dedicated to free speech and freedom of assembly in Jefferson’s memory?

The final plan, as you know, was none of these. The Jefferson Memorial would be constructed near the National Mall. Except even the location turned out to be problematic.

Cherry trees would need to be removed to make room for the Memorial, which really upset some people. Protestors tied themselves to the trees and filled up holes intended for transplanted trees.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt dismissed these protests—but maybe his complaint sounds familiar? The newspapers, FDR said, were getting people all riled up over nothing! Not that many trees would be lost, despite allegations to the contrary.

“It is the worst case of flim-flamming that this dear old capital of ours has been subjected to for a long time,” Roosevelt concluded.

But that was only one side of the controversy. The designer was a whole new issue.

A man named John Russell Pope had been selected for that task, which really upset some people. Shouldn’t we hold a national competition? How undemocratic (and unJeffersonian) to simply appoint someone. Pope was working to mimic architectural styles that Jefferson had appreciated during his lifetime, but not everyone understood that. Instead, they saw the pantheon design and felt that such a classic Roman structure wasn’t right. It simply didn’t fit in with their perception of Jefferson’s progressive views.

The President of the American Sculptors Society called it a “hallow mockery of spirit” that didn’t honor Jefferson. Others labeled the design a “pompous pile” and a “cold mausoleum imitation of imperial Rome.”

“In a sense,” a National Park Service handbook concludes, “the issue mirrored the conflict between those who clung to the historical Jefferson and those who appealed to his progressive vision.”

Nevertheless, FDR gave his approval to the design, and the project proceeded. The cornerstone was laid on November 15, 1939.

“[Jefferson] lived, as we live,” Roosevelt concluded during a ceremony that day, “in the midst of a struggle between rule by the self-chosen individual or the self-appointed few . . . . He believed, as we do, that the average opinion of mankind is in the long run superior to the dictates of the self-chosen.”

Jefferson would surely agree.

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