The waterways that flow through Washington are not only picturesque but very useful for all manner of human enterprises. Between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel, there is a large tidal basin that connects the two with systems that allow the tides of the Potomac River to flush out the silt that builds up in the Channel. The concept originated back in the 1880s, not just for engineering purposes, but also to create a magnificent visual centrepiece for Washington. (See Appendix 2). It is around this basin that so many of the significant memorials of the city have been set up to honour the great citizen heroes of America’s past.
In particular there are two extensive memorials to two former presidents of the USA; one from the start of the 19th century, Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and the three term president from the twentieth century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45).
Franklin Delanore Roosevelt Memorial
Walking from the Lincoln Memorial along the Potomac River, you enter the Roosevelt memorial which is divided up into four sections, one for each of his presidential terms. The map below of the memorial complex (courtesy NPMaps.com) gives you some idea of the extent of this landscaped area, each section illustrating the major issues of the period with sculptures, inscriptions and water features. The image on the right of Roosevelt in his wheelchair (caught polio in 1921) was added in 2001. The original idea for the memorial began in 1955 but was not completed until 1997… the original planning decided not to emphasize the fact that the longest serving president spent all of that time in a wheelchair. A later generation disagreed.
Sections 1 & 2 (1933-1941)
These two terms of office involved FDR dealing with the Great Depression, the economic recovery based around the ‘New Deal’ framework and the lead up to USA’s involvement in World War II.
Sections 3 and 4 (1941-1945)
These two terms were spent dealing with the complex issues of the USA’s involvement in World War 2. He died suddenly on March 29, 1945, not long after his re-election for a fourth term as President.
The Waterfall image below in the Memorial symbolizes the clashing, chaotic forces of WWII.
The above image shows the view over the Tidal Basin as we walked towards the Jefferson Memorial. (I am unsure as to why it appears that the Washington Monument has a significant lean!)
George Mason Memorial
From FDR’s Memorial, the visitor heads around the Tidal Basin heading for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. After crossing the bridge over the river-opening into the Tidal Basin, you will encounter a comparatively small memorial to another founding father, Geroge Mason.
George Mason (1725-1792) was a Virginian planter and politician as well as being a neighbour and friend of George Washington. He is now remembered in history for writing the Virginian Declaration of Rights in 1776. The development of these ideas around the rights of colonial Americans was part of the mix that led to the Second Continental Congress voting for independence from Britain and the official adoption of the Declaration of Independence, developed by Thomas Jefferson, on the 4th July, 1776. Mason was also the author of America’s first ‘Bill of Rights’.
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
The path from the Mason Memorial takes us directly to the beautiful domed building, further around the foreshore of the Tidal Basin, that is the Jefferson Memorial. Unfortunately the day we visited, its famous dome was covered in scaffolding so we did not get to view Jefferson Memorial building as its true self; half Roman Temple and half dome; the architect acknowledged the influence of the Pantheon building in Rome. The image below of the memorial pre-renovation times shows it at its best. The construction of the building began in 1939 and was completed in 1943.
For those who know little about this amazing man, Thomas Jefferson, let me just provide a potted summary of some of the highlights of his extraordinary life on the left below. The other panel is from the Museum on the ground floor and gives a general, very positive account of the man and his achievements.
The downstairs Museum is a series of rooms full of posters, historical cartoons and all manner of memorabilia about Jefferson. A stroll around this museum is an excellent way to get up to speed with the early history of this new nation state, attempting to break free from the British empire, both politically and economically. It wasn’t an easy task for the first few Presidents to balance the budget, protect the economy of its citizens and to steer a course between the demands of the European states during the Napoleonic Wars.
The upstairs section of the memorial under the dome is open to the weather, surrounded by Ionic columns, where there is a 5.8 metre bronze statue of Jefferson completed in 1947. On the wall in the background there are inscribed excerpts from the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men. We … solemnly publish and declare, that these colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states … And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Above: The Jefferson Memorial under renovation at the time of our visit in November 2019.
APPENDIX 1. Harper Lee referencing FDR
Growing up in Sydney Australia, there was little cause to know much about F.D. Roosevelt; I was born six years after he died and my education didn’t mention much American History. However we did have to read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Any person who has read this book knows it is essential human reading and I was lucky enough to have to teach it to less than enthusiastic secondary students. I remember reading Chapter 1 with classes and invariably being asked to explain the “nothing to fear” phrase. I am sure I looked it up somewhere and was able to explain to classes that it was a famous quote from a speech by the American President, F.D. Roosevelt. That was it, no context, little knowledge of FDR or his times. I have been very lucky later in life to walk around the Tidal Basin in Washington and get some context about FDR and the understated way that Harper Lee used FDR’s line from his 1933 Inaugural Address in Washington. The inscription in this memorial was like meeting an old friend after many years.
APPENDIX 2. The Creation of the Tidal Basin, Washington
Notes on sign located just before George Mason Memorial.
“Where you are standing was originally the bottom of the Potomac River. The shoreline roughly paralleled 15th Street, skirted around the Washington Monument which stood almost at the river’s edge, and the followed what is now the current route of Constitution Avenue. In the 1880s, planners developed a strategy for reclaiming the area, which at low tide was nothing but mud flats. Dredging operations and seawall construction created the Tidal Basin and East and West Potomac Parks…”