The Statue of Liberty is one of the most famous symbols of America. But the statue has a long history. Here Aliasgar Abuwala explains the French origins of the statue, how it took many years from being an idea to actually being erected in New York, and the importance of its symbolism in the twentieth century.

The Statue of Liberty. Source: Daniel Schwen, available  here .

The Statue of Liberty. Source: Daniel Schwen, available here.

Throughout most of the 19th century, France had alternated between absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies and republican forms of government, with varying degrees of power held by elected representatives. The collective psyche of the French was undergoing a monumental change in its beliefs in royal traditions, equality and religion. However, the ideals of the French Revolution had taken root and France had many influential liberals both in and out of its government bodies.

One of them was Édouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, a lawyer, author, academician and anti-slavery activist. Deeply influenced by the values enshrined in the constitution of the United States, he felt France and the U.S. were common partners in promoting these values. After the Union’s victory in the U.S. Civil War in 1865, he had the idea that France should present a monument to the United States to commemorate its ideals of liberty and democracy. In this way, he wished to infuse the same ideals into the consciousness of his countrymen.


Liberty Enlightening the World

Laboulaye put forward the idea to Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the noted sculptor who had a passion for designing monumental structures. The sculptor wholeheartedly supported Laboulaye. Naming the statue was key for the project to take off. Liberty was a controversial term in 19thcentury Europe. It was associated with revolution and violence by many people. The statue had to be seen as a symbol of law and peace, showing the way to freedom. The statue called, Liberty Enlightening the World, would be an honourable and authoritative figure above political turmoil. The statue would be funded by the French and presented to the United States.

The project stalled due to the Franco-Prussian War, in which France’s emperor Napoleon III was captured and deposed. Laboulaye had been elected to the National Assemble and was instrumental in forming The Third Republic. These were ideal circumstances to generate support for the Statue of Liberty. Armed with references and letters of introduction given by Laboulaye, Bartholdi travelled to America to discuss the idea with influential people. 

As soon as Bartholdi’s ship sailed into New York Harbour, he decided that Bedloe Island, now Liberty Island, should be the site of the statue as it would be seen by all ships leaving or leaving the United States. Among the powerful people he met in America was President Ulysses S. Grant who assured him that obtaining the site would not be a constraint. Bartholdi travelled the length and breadth of America, but after returning to France, he confided to Laboulaye that the general response was not as enthusiastic as they had hoped. They decided to launch a public campaign and organized a group called the Franco-American Union.


Design and Symbolism

Bartholdi and Laboulaye had to come up with a figure that could best express the American idea of liberty. They decided on adopting the dominant image of Liberty in the United States, which was derived from the Roman goddess of freedom, Libertas. However, Libertas was popular all over Europe. Artists of the 18thand 19thcenturies often used the goddess to represent democratic ideals, but often in a manner that associated her with violence. Liberty Enlightening the World had to depict peace and progress and it was decided that Liberty would wear flowing robes and would hold a torch.

The statue also needed to be crowned. There were two kinds of headwear that statues of Liberty were traditionally donned with: a pileus, a kind of cap given to freed slaves in ancient Rome, and a helmet. Bartholdi chose a diadem instead.  The crown has seven rays which form a halo. It was designed to depict the sun and the seven continents. The rays of the sun are meant to reinforce the torch, by which Liberty Enlightens the World. 

Bartholdi designed the statue with strong classical contours to best set if off against the harbour. He wanted passengers on ships entering the harbour to have altering perspectives of Liberty as they sailed towards Manhattan. Reflecting the scale of the project and its solemn objective, Bartholdi scripted his thoughts: 

The surfaces should be broad and simple, defined by a bold and clear design, accentuated in the important places. The enlargement of the details or their multiplicity is to be feared. By exaggerating the forms, in order to render them more clearly visible, or by enriching them with details, we would destroy the proportion of the work. Finally, the model, like the design, should have a summarized character, such as one would give to a rapid sketch. Only it is necessary that this character should be the product of volition and study, and that the artist, concentrating his knowledge, should find the form and the line in its greatest simplicity.


Bartholdi wanted to place a broken chain implying freedom in Liberty’s left hand but thought it would be controversial in the aftermath of the Civil War. So he placed the chain under her robes, beneath her stride, and where it would be relatively inconspicuous In her left hand, Bartholdi placed a tabula ansata, a tablet associated with law and governance. Though even the master sculptor admired the United States Constitution, he chose the Declaration of Independence to be associated with the idea of Liberty. Hence, the ‘JULY IV MDCCLXXVI’ inscription on the tablet. The height of the statue had been decided at just over 151 feet or 46 meters.


Getting to Work

By 1875, France’s economy had recovered from the war. Laboulaye decided it was time to announce the project and seek public support. The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia seemed the best time to do it. Laboulaye formed the Franco-American Union to help in raising funds for the project. Liberty Enlightening the World would be financed and made in France and America would be required to produce the pedestal on which Liberty would be mounted. The announcement was received with general enthusiasm; as would be expected French monarchists opposed the statue, if for no other reason but to spite Laboulaye who was recently elected a senator-for-life. 

Laboulaye organized fund-raising events designed to appeal to the rich and influential. A musical held at the Paris Opera on April 25 1876, featured a new cantata composed by Charles Gounod especially for the project. It was titled La Liberté éclairant le monde, the French translation of the announced name. However, Laboulaye was able to raise funds from all sections of French society, including schoolchildren and municipalities. Laboulaye asked for support in his political rallies; descendents of the French contingent who had fought in the American War of Independence contributed. French copper industrialist Eugene Secretan donated thousands of pounds of copper.

Bartholdi began fabricating the head and diadem of Liberty and the right arm bearing the torch. In May 1876, he sailed to the United States to participate in the Centennial Exhibition as a member of the French delegation. A huge painting of the statue was displayed in New York as a part of the Exhibition. The head and arm reached Philadelphia too late to have the sculpture recorded in the exhibition catalogue, due to which few could identify it as the Statue of Liberty. However, the exhibit became popular in the closing days of the festival and people climbed up to the balcony of the torch for a better view of the fairgrounds. The head and arm were displayed in Madison Square Park in New York for several years before they were transported back to France to join the rest of the statue.

Bartholdi turned to his former trainer and mentor, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, to design the internal structure of the statue. He suggested a wooden framework with masonry compartments filled with sand be used to support the thousands of pounds of copper skin. Viollet-le-Duc also asked Bartholdi to mold light-weight copper sheets by battering them onto the wooden structure, a technique known as repoussé. He would then use armature bars to attach the molded sheets. The master also helped his former pupil in designing Liberty’s torch and her arm’s support system.

Viollet-le-Duc died unexpectedly in 1879 and Bartholdi asked Gustave Eiffel to finish the internal construction. The creator of his future eponymous landmark designed a completely new support structure for the statue but retained Viollet-le-Duc’s repoussé technique and his skilful use of armature bars.


The Pedestal

Bartholdi made a third trip to the United States and urged Americans of the Franco-American Union to raise funds for the pedestal. Laboulaye turned to his fellow Union League Club members, a group that supported the Union in the Civil War. One of the members was William Maxwell Evarts, an accomplished statesman and lawyer, who was made chairman of the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty. Committees were formed in several states but the New York committee understandably took on most of the responsibility for the pedestal. The committee included 19-year old Theodore Roosevelt, the future President of the United States. 

However, Evarts would prove to be the key figure in the success of the fundraising campaign for the pedestal. The senior statesman’s committed involvement and his social and political influence validated the campaign in the eyes of the public and press. More important was Evart’s influence in the White House and with President Grant. After much persuasion, a joint committee of Congress passed a resolution officially accepting the Statue of Liberty as a gift from France on March 3, 1877. He was also instrumental in Congress contributing $56,000 towards the pedestal.

Famous architect Richard Morris Hunt was commissioned to design the pedestal. Bartholdi, the creator of Liberty Enlightening the World imagined the pedestal as looming ‘Fortress of Liberty’. He also discussed other designs, including a stepped pyramid with Hunt. From 1882 to 1884, Hunt experimented with numerous designs of his own. The architect and the French sculptor ultimately combined the ‘Fortress’ with Hunt’s ‘Pharos I’ design inspired by the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of antiquity. Hunt’s pedestal fused in harmony with the colossal statue above it and remains an important monument in its own right.

Hunt’s other notable works include the New York Tribune building, the Lenox Library and many more. Hunt also founded the American Institute of Architects in 1857 and served as its first secretary. Hunt received $1,000 for his work on the statue, which he donated to the pedestal’s construction.

Statue of Liberty Unveiled  by Edward Moran.

Statue of Liberty Unveiled by Edward Moran.

The Symbol of Liberty

In 1886, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated as the symbol of democracy, the ideals of the Enlightenment and equality for all. However, the struggle for liberty and justice for all was still a reality for a section of American society. African Americans were loath to embrace the symbol of a nation, which would not include them as equal citizens. The Statue of Liberty would not help them achieve equality and justice in the truest sense for another century.

America had long been a nation of immigrants, but when nearby Ellis Island became an immigration centre in 1892, the Statue of Liberty became a welcoming figure as the ships sailed into the harbour. Over time, the Liberty emerged as the ‘Mother of all Exiles’, a beacon of hope for generations of foreigners who had dreamt of a better life in the New World. President Franklin D. Roosevelt further solidified the statue as an immigration icon in his speech on its 50th anniversary when he described immigration as a central part of America’s history. However, the symbolism ignored the real difficulties of settling in the United States, particularly for immigrants from non-European countries.

The two World Wars further advanced the Statue of Liberty as an emblem of freedom for the poor and persecuted people of Europe. The islands of New York harbour had long served as military bases and the statue came to be associated with the US military as well. In wartime, the monument achieved renewed significance for soldiers sailing out to fight overseas. It became an image they may never see again. 

Pictures of the Statue of Liberty were used to sell war bonds and mobilize war efforts in the country. It also reminded Americans that the statue was a gift from embattled France. Servicemen and women returning from war were moved by the sight of Liberty as they sailed back into the harbour. Even after 9/11, the Statue of Liberty was invoked to express American horror, anguish and rage. 

The Statue of Liberty was originally intended to serve as a lighthouse under the administration of the U.S. Lighthouse board. However, though the torch had been electrified, the statue had not been designed to serve as a lighthouse. After some decades under the U.S. Department of War, the Statue of Liberty was eventually turned over to the National Park Service in 1937. Norman T. Newton, the landscape architect of the National Park Service transformed Liberty Island into a park befitting the national monument.  In 1984, the statue was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


What do you think of the importance of the Statue of Liberty? Let us know below.

This article was written by Aliasgar Abuwala of Travel Back Through Time.