Symbols of Freedom: The Statue of Liberty

Transcript from a lecture series Produced in partnership with Smithsonian

The Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom recognized around the world. The statue heralded a way of immigration that gave America a much more diverse face, but the concept didn’t start out with that purpose in mind.

The Genesis of an Idea

The Liberty statue’s story begins in Egypt in the mid 1850s. Visiting the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza, young French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi was transfixed by the power and romance he found in the large-scale public monuments. A decade later, back home in France, he attended a dinner party hosted by Édouard Laboulaye. Laboulaye was a lawyer, a professor, and chairman of the French antislavery society. The Civil War had just ended, and Laboulaye was rejoicing at the defeat of slavery; he rhapsodized about the historic connections between France and the United States. The names of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the Marquis de Lafayette rolled off his tongue as he proposed a grand monument to liberty that should be built in time for the American Centennial in 1876, several years hence.

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Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904)

The idea of a monument struck a chord with Bartholdi. Returning to Egypt in 1869, he proposed building a massive statue at the entrance to the newly constructed Suez Canal. His design was of a robed woman with a headdress holding a torch. She would double as a lighthouse. He called his vision Egypt Bringing Light to Asia. Well, the Egyptians were uninterested in Bartholdi’s proposal and unwilling to pay for it. So the artist changed course. He set sail for America in 1871, and entering New York Harbor, Bartholdi was struck by Manhattan’s jewel-like beauty and its symbolic power as the gateway to America. Bedloe’s Island, a tiny islet owned by the federal government, seemed a perfect place for a monument in that harbor.

The Frenchman compared his proposal to the Colossus of Rhodes, a bronze statue erected on a Greek island more than 2,000 years ago and described as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. While the brief-lived Colossus was emblematic of power, Bartholdi’s lady would signify liberty. She would be modeled after the Roman goddess Libertas and would reflect America’s faith in its citizenry. With the help of his old friend Laboulaye, the sculptor formed the Franco-American Union in 1875 to raise money. He hoped the French would generate funds to build and ship the statue through private donations; and that individual Americans could raise the money to construct the statue’s rather large pedestal. Through Levi Morton, the American minister to France at the time, Laboulaye urged President Ulysses Grant to support the endeavor. To succeed, it needed the American government to donate the underlying land.

A Sculpture Takes Shape

The design that Bartholdi came up with featured a robed lady in spiked crown, clutching a tablet inscribed “July 4, 1776” and standing atop broken chains and shackles. In her right hand, she is lifting a torch. Bartholdi needed a first-class engineer for the project, as the massive statue would be buffeted by rain, snow and wind. He enlisted Eugène le-Duc, who suggested the repoussé method of metalwork; 300 thin sheets of copper would be hammered into the form of the statue’s skin. They would then be connected by iron-bar armature to a structure. Bartholdi built progressively larger-scale models—4-, 9-, and 36-foot versions of the Statue of Liberty. From these, he could develop plaster casts and wooden forms for shaping the copper skin. In 1876, he was able to send Liberty’s right arm and torch to Philadelphia to be shown at the Centennial Exposition, after which, it was displayed at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Stereoscopic image of right arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty
Stereoscopic image of right arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty, 1876 Centennial Exposition.

American fund-raising got off to a slow start, however; and many wondered whether the French would come through on their part. Though contributions did not pour in as expected, President Grant signed a bill authorizing the construction of a statue on Bedloe Island before he left office in 1877. And in 1878, Bartholdi displayed the completed head and shoulders of the statue at the Paris Exposition.

Image of The statue of liberty's head on exhibit at the Paris World's Fair, 1878
The statue of liberty’s head on exhibit at the Paris World’s Fair, 1878

French architect and structural engineer Alexandre Eiffel took over the statue’s internal design after the death of le-Duc in 1879. This was slightly less than a decade before Eiffel would then begin construction of the lattice tower named for him in Paris. Now, Eiffel praised le-Duc’s designs, but instead of relying on the outer shell for support, he envisioned a 120-ton inner skeletal structure that would be anchored by a 98-foot pylon composed of four huge iron posts to hold up the statue. It would be tied to another anchor sunk in 154-foot-high pedestal. This marvel of relatively lightweight trusses and flexible suspension would thus enable the statue to adjust to the weather conditions, and also, allow visitors to walk right up to the top via an internal staircase. These ideas, cutting-edge at the time, would again be put to use in the construction of the Eiffel Tower.

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The Long Road to Funding

By 1882, the French committee had raised all the money needed to build the statue—250,000 dollars—and Bartholdi and Eiffel were on track to complete the work the following year. But American fund-raising efforts were lagging, and so Bartholdi had to slow down. Meanwhile, he shipped his four-foot model of Liberty from Paris to Washington, DC in order to persuade Congress to help fund the project. He didn’t succeed, at least not right away. But this terracotta model, painted to appear bronze, with a touch of tin in the crown, was used by architect Richard Morris Hunt to design the pedestal. Hunt, the son of a congressman, was the first American to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris; and he had just helped design a new façade for the Louvre, and he’d worked on the construction of the U.S. Capitol dome.

Image of Liberty ca. 1884 Frederic Auguste Bartholdi - Smithsonian American Art Museum 2nd Floor, South Wing
ca. 1884
Frederic Auguste Bartholdi Smithsonian American Art Museum 2nd Floor, South Wing

Bartholdi’s model was displayed in the Capitol Rotunda, where it attracted its fair share of attention, including notice by a Hungarian immigrant named Joseph Pulitzer, a newspaper publisher who that same year moved to Manhattan and acquired the mass-circulation New York World. Pulitzer’s newspaper exhorted Americans to donate money for the cause and criticized the wealthy people for failing to contribute. The public rallied to his call. By 1885, Pulitzer had helped raise the last one-third of 300,000 dollars needed to complete the pedestal and its anchor through his fund-raising activities; these included sporting events, plays, and performances. Even Mark Twain donated goods for auction for the purpose.

An Icon is Born

The statue was shipped from Paris to New York and assembled to its full height of 151 feet. Given Thomas Edison’s recent triumph of electrifying Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan, the decision was made to light the torch with electric bulbs. And on October 28, 1886, with President Grover Cleveland presiding, Bartholdi pulled a rope that released the French tricolor flag covering Lady Liberty’s face. Following the statue’s dedication, Bartholdi’s four-foot model was transferred from the Capitol Rotunda to the Smithsonian, where today it’s on display in the American Art Museum.

In 1903, words from a poem, “The New Colossus,” were added on the tablet at the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The poem was written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 and donated to the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus’s poem had originally addressed anti-Semitism toward Jews who had fled pogroms in Russia to come to the United States in the early 1880s. But with the opening of nearby Ellis Island in 1892 as the processing station for millions of immigrants from all of Europe, the sight of the Statue of Liberty and the last verse of Lazarus’s poem took on special meaning:

“Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send here, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The sight of the Statue of Liberty and the words of that poem would greet some 12 million newcomers to America until the Ellis Island closed for immigration in 1954.

From the Lecture Series Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History
Taught by Professor Richard Kurin, Ph.D.