“Misleading quotation on the T.J. memorial obscures his position on slavery”

While the view of the Tidal Basin and aromatic cherry blossoms set a serene scene around the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., the memorial, since its inception, has been riddled with contradictions and controversy.

Disagreements over the design of the memorial began as early as 1902 when the McMillan Plan established the Tidal Basin as a future memorial location. Some petitioned for the Jefferson Memorial to adopt a Pantheon-like design, citing the UVa Rotunda as a work of art that reflected Jefferson’s architectural influence. In addition to gleaning architectural inspiration from the University of Virginia, the memorial and the commission claimed other connections to the school. Fiske Kimball, a member of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission, headed the newly created Department of Art and Architecture in 1919, served as the university’s principal architect, and also oversaw a significant period of restorations at Monticello. Other design suggestions proposed a more practical design like a planetarium for public use, to which a congressman cheekily replied, “Why not just adopt the stars as a memorial to Thomas Jefferson?” Although quarrels over the design and location of the memorial broke out in congressional hearings and within the commission itself, construction eventually began in 1939 at a cornerstone laying ceremony presided over by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Inscription at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Inscription at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C.

The finished memorial features a nineteen-foot-tall bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson made by Rudulph Evans and four quotations from Jefferson’s written work carved into the walls of the memorial chamber. The four panels each quote selections from Jefferson’s published works and synthesize his ideas on education, democracy, equality, and freedom. Most of the panels quote single texts by Jefferson, amongst them the famous Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, in addition to personal correspondence Jefferson had with George Washington and Samuel Kercheval. Panel Three or the Northeast Portico of the memorial, displays a text that is drawn from four different sources but predominantly features Query Eight of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. The panel reads:

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Establish the law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state to effect and on a general plan.”


The italicized portions of the text come directly from the Note’s on the State of Virginia but nearly each sentence was either streamlined or removed from the original textual context. The full text is as follows:


“For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labor. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever . . .”


“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it.”


The removal of the quotes from their original contexts muddles the transmission of Jeffersonian ideals and sometimes even contradicts Jefferson’s own words. In fact, the quote from the memorial that reads: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [slaves] are to be free” is an excerpt from Jefferson’s Autobiography. While the language clearly articulates a desire and moral urgency to emancipate the enslaved black population, the quote continues to say: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.” The selection of the first portion of the quote and more importantly, the omission of the second half, presents Jefferson as a believer in emancipation, if not abolition, rather than a slave owner who said himself that “as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” If the quotes selected for the Jefferson Memorial do not merely complicate the intended meaning of the words of Jefferson, then they surely confuse the figure of Jefferson in how he is permanently memorialized. Monuments serve to instill and invoke certain feelings (i.e. nostalgia, patriotism, veneration) upon those who gaze upon them by capturing a figure, in this case Thomas Jefferson, in a deified way. But by misquoting and consequently misrepresenting an individual in a public, permanent symbol, understanding a complex figure like Jefferson becomes an impossible battle between historical memory and effective criticism.


The choice of the inscriptions was left to a three-person commission composed of Jefferson Memorial Commission members headed by Senator Elbert Thomas of Utah. Senator Thomas’ interest in Thomas Jefferson extended beyond his membership in the memorial commission. In 1942, prior to the official memorial dedication, Thomas wrote a biography of Jefferson titled Thomas Jefferson, World Citizen. In the book, Thomas describes the process of selecting quotes for the walls of the memorial as an effort to narrow down the statements while still trying to “maintain the import of the quotations.” The end product was what Thomas hoped to be “the principles which reflect America as she is today, but also… a unit of Jefferson’s political philosophy.” In World Citizen, Thomas maintains his position as an objective analyzer of Jefferson’s sentiments:


“I followed the rule of not adding a single word to anything that Jefferson wrote, but I took some liberty with his writings in that I eliminated unnecessary words and put sentences out of their original order in respect to time, place, and circumstance. No violence was done to Jefferson’s thought and no violence was done to his expression. All the words were his, all the thoughts were his; every sentence was a complete thought and reflected the idea he intended it to convey.” (20)


In spite of Thomas’ insistence that his selections accurately represented Thomas Jefferson’s opinions, a further reading of the commissioner’s book reveals that his conception of Jefferson was positively skewed. Thomas writes that even though Jefferson inherited slaves and lived in communities where his equals also owned slaves, that Jefferson’s “love of liberty should bring him to advocate freedom for the Negro is enough to give us renewed faith in the man, in his ability to rise above self-interest and social pressure, in his willingness to cling to an ideal without hope of personal reward” (181). The author goes as far as to include the very quote used in the memorial inscription from the Notes on the State as illustrative evidence of Jefferson’s opposition to human enslavement. Thomas not only misrepresents Jefferson’s commitment to the emancipation of slaves, but he also overlooks any and all expressions made by Jefferson that confirm his apathy towards the progress of emancipation. The pseudoscientific justifications for the discrimination of race made by Jefferson are also omitted from Thomas’ book which intentionally or not, fortifies the false depiction of Jefferson as a man who “took every opportunity to raise his voice in favor of emancipation.” Although Thomas’s opinion of Jefferson may have been representative of the knowledge available at the time, his charged selections portray Jefferson in a biased, if not largely inaccurate light that contradicts most contemporary insight. The presence of such quotes on a monument that annually receives millions of visitors presents an issue of historical (mis)representation and political application.


Hahna Cho










https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.b4437357;view=1up;seq=31;size=125. 19-20


The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. Merrill D. Peterson. 431