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Enlightening The World With Liberty

Nine score and four years ago, Senator William Everts, chairman of the New York Committee, was slated to speak at the dedication ceremony of the Statue of Liberty. As he took a dramatic pause, Frédéric Bartholdi, the chief designer of the Statue, mistook it for the conclusion of the speech, lowering the French Flag draped across Lady Liberty's face, unveiling the structure to loud cheers from the onlookers, thereby cutting the senator's speech short. The gaffe was quickly corrected by President Grover Cleveland, who elegantly proclaimed that the statue's "stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man's oppression until Liberty enlightens the world".


wall mural

Statue of Liberty wall mural


In many ways, the blunder personified America's own relationship with the ideals that the statue personified. Even as the president spoke, suffragists approached the island on a boat and chanted slogans approving of liberty's embodiment as a woman and advocating women's voting rights. Shortly after the dedication, The Cleveland Gazette, an African American newspaper, wrote a scathing indictment of the government's failure to protect its African American citizens, claiming that it was absurd to talk of the light of the statue enlightening even Patagonia while African American citizens continued suffering injustice and oppression.



Yet, as always, the United States stumbled, groped in the darkness, but continued to march inexorably towards a freer tomorrow. The genesis of the Statue itself may be traced to an 1865 conversation that Bartholdi had with the French abolitionist Edouard de Laboulaye, where Laboulaye proposed that a joint Franco-American effort to create a monument dedicated to liberty. The Union emerged victorious in1865, abolishing slavery in the United States, and allowing Laboulaye's idea to begin germinating. In 1873, after defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, France itself turned away from monarchy, joining the United States as a proud nation of free citizens ruling themselves.


By 1874, The Union Franco-Américaine was established by Laboulaye. Bartholdi's dedication to liberty was perhaps strengthened by Prussian annexation of his homeland in Alsace. Four years had already passed since Bartholdi made his first sketches for the Statue, and, in 1871, Bartholdi had made his first crossing of the Atlantic. Arriving at New York Harbor as millions before and after him, Bartholdi was struck by Bedloe's Island (now Liberty Island), and the fact that ships sailing to and from the island had to sail past it. Since the land was the property of the federal government, President Ulysses S. Grant assured him that it would not be difficult to obtain permission to build the statue. For the time being, however, funding the statue itself remained a problem, as neither Laboulaye nor Bartholdi was convinced that there was sufficient support in either the United States or France for it.



Statue of Liberty pendant with stainless chain


Inspiration for the design itself came from a multitude of sources. Columbia already had a long tradition for being a female personification of the Americas, or more specifically of the United States, and Marianne symbolized the French Revolution and its ideals. Both were somewhat grounded in the goddess Libertas, who was widely worshipped in Ancient Rome, especially by emancipated slaves. Representations of liberty were common in the United States at the time, appearing in coins and statues. Both nations had long treasured similar ideals of freedom, their revolutions less than two decades apart. The Statue's design also drew inspiration from the Egyptian goddess Isis, whose cult grew to encompass the entirety of the classical world.


 Liberty Leading The People

Liberty Leading The People by Eugene Delacroix.


Libertas was a common source of inspiration to artists of the 18th and 19th centuries since their work frequently dealt with enlightenment ideals of republicanism. Both Bartholdi and Laboulaye, however, took care not to create a work like Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, which commemorated the Second Revolution of 1830 in France by depicting a bare-breasted Goddess leading revolutionaries through a landscape littered with bodies. Although they both held republican ideas, both were staunchly against revolution, likely due to the disastrous end that the French Revolution came to. Ultimately, Lady Liberty came to be dressed in flowing robes, giving her a distinctly serene appearance. The diadem placed atop her head symbolizes the seven continents and seven seas, in line with her mandate of spreading liberty throughout the world.


Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 1885 edition, showing (clockwise), a woodcut of the Statue, Bartholdi, and the internal structure of the Statue.


It was perhaps the fundraising efforts, however, that truly imbued the Statue with the regard that it has today. Attempts to have the New York and federal legislatures fund the pedestal in the United States came to naught, and with the New York Committee able to set a mere $3000 for its completion, the project appeared to be doomed. Ultimately Joseph Pulitzer (yes, THAT Joseph Pulitzer) announced a drive to raise $100,000 to ensure that the Statue becomes reality. He pledged that the name of every contributor, big or small, would appear in the pages of the New York World. These contributions were published with comments and soon captured New Yorkers' imagination. Money flowed in from kindergartners, alcoholics, old ladies, and in the process cemented New York's sense of community. The poet Emma Lazarus was approached to write a few lines to help with the fundraising effort but declined to do so, stating that she would not know what to write of a statue. She was, at the time, working with poor immigrants struggling to make it in New York and when the writer Constance Cary Harrison told her the impact that the statue would have on immigrants sailing into the harbor, well, the rest is history. The New Colossus remains a deeply poignant sonnet dedicated to the proposition that America would, for one and all, be the land of the free and the home of the brave.


Unveiling of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World (1886) by Edward Moran. Oil on canvas.


The Statue had always been an ambitious project, not unlike American independence. And like American independence, it owed its ultimate success to the extraordinary leadership of a few notable individuals, the dedication and commitment of ordinary citizens who contributed to it, sometimes even at the cost of their next meal, and maybe a little help from France. Since its opening, the Statue has undergone significant renovation and repair, mirroring the nation as it sometimes faltered and misstepped, but always marching towards a brighter and freer tomorrow.



  1. https://www.nps.gov/stli/index.htm
  2. https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_BaxpalYegj0C/page/n197/mode/2up
  3. http://www.english.upenn.edu/~cavitch/pdf-library/Cavitch_Lazarus_expanded.pdf
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:18861028_Liberty%27s_Statue_(Bartholdi)_-_New_York_Evening_Post_(full_page).jpg
  5. https://www.messynessychic.com/2012/06/22/made-in-paris-the-statue-of-liberty-1877-1885/
  6. https://structurae.net/en/structures/statue-of-liberty
  7. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=4-EDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA203&dq=Popular+Mechanics+1931+curtiss&hl=en&ei=cLsATbqFMZTjnQf3tNzlDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Popular%20Mechanics%201931%20curtiss&f=true
  8. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Isis-Egyptian-goddess
  9. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=vNI9046BaRAC&pg=PA13&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false


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