Constitution Gardens is a lovely, 50-acre park in downtown Washington, DC located on the western end of the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and World War II Memorial. It shares the northern portion of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The central feature is a 7-acre meandering lake lined with a footpath, averaging two to three feet deep, that is within sight of the Washington Monument.
The water feature attracts ducks, geese and other water loving birds, making it an enjoyable hotspot for birders. Long, tree-lined walkways provide a shady pass-through between the other major monuments.
Constitution Gardens was created at the behest of President Richard Nixon, and dedicated in 1976 as part the Bicentennial of the American Revolution tribute. Suggested names of Bicentennial Gardens and Nixon Gardens were rejected in favor of the street name – Constitution Avenue NW – on which it resides. The park is open 24/7 and is operated by the National Park Service.
Inside the lake at Constitution Gardens is a small island where you’ll find the Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence. The Memorial is a low, semicircular wall made of 56 individual granite blocks, each bearing the engraved, gold-painted signature of one of the Declaration’s 56 Signers.
The names are grouped by their representative state, which is carved on the ground below each grouping.
You can access the memorial by crossing a small footbridge on the north side of the lake off Constitution Avenue NW. You’ll see words from the Declaration inscribed on the short, stone path. The Memorial was added to the park several years after the Gardens were in place, and was dedicated on July 2, 1984.
With so many famous memorials surrounding Constitution Gardens, it is easy to miss the little-known tribute. But I recommend stopping by to honor the men who risked their lives to secure our freedom. Some of the names are well-known in American culture:
Since its creation, Constitution Gardens has been plagued by drainage problems, poor quality soil and algae growth. And over time, the condition of the walkways and pond structure has deteriorated. While fixes have been made over the years, National Mall planners concluded that a complete overhaul was necessary to alleviate the problems and make the space more useful. A design competition held in 2012 resulted in new plans that include a pavilion with a restaurant, performance space, an ice rink, and a deeper pond built to sustain plants and wildlife. See the plans here. Funding is still needed to complete the estimated $150 million project. To learn more, visit the Trust for the National Mall website and find out how you can contribute to restoring Constitution Gardens.
Most Americans today know the second line of 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 unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But there’s more to it than that.
Though the American Revolution had begun a year earlier with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the American colonists were still attempting to make peace with their mother country, Great Britain. After negotiations failed, the Second Continental Congress directed a Committee of Five to write a statement declaring to the world that the thirteen colonies were separating from British control. Thomas Jefferson, already known to be a compelling writer, was tasked with penning a draft.
In just a couple weeks’ time, the young lawyer from Virginia presented a case for separation from the Mother country in a document that forever changed the world. First, it declared that rights are endowed by our creator, not a king. And second, it listed 27 grievances against King George III, such as cutting off trade and imposing taxes without consent. Jefferson’s words embodied the sentiments of the colonists at that time in history. It was adopted by the 2nd Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.
But it was also just one step toward freedom. The outcome of the Revolutionary War, which carried on another seven years, could have gone either way. By signing the letter, the delegates knew they were committing treason, punishable by torture and death in those days. They knowingly risked their lives, wealth and families to obtain freedom for themselves and future generations.
George Washington did not sign it because he was New York with his troops serving as Commander of the Continental Army. Read more about it here. Fourth President James Madison, who would be later known as the “Father of the Constitution,” was a young man serving as a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention. Though he and Jefferson would become close friends and political allies, they did not meet until a few months later in October, 1776. See his timeline here.
To learn more about the 56 Signers, read their short biographies here, or watch this video series:
To see the original Declaration of Independence, walk a mile down the National Mall to the National Archives Museum. Inside the Rotunda, you will see the original Declaration, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Find out more here. Also, stop by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin to honor the primary author and the Declaration.
Learn how you can donate to the Constitution Gardens restoration project at the Trust for the National Mall