The statue of “Liberty Enlightening the World” was initially a gift of friendship from the people of France to those in the United States. Lady Liberty has since fulfilled her deeper purpose. She is now recognized as a universal symbol of freedom and democracy—a beacon to oppressed people all over the world.
Edouard de Laboulaye first proposed honoring the United States with a monument in 1865. An ardent supporter of the “common law of free peoples,” Laboulaye hoped the Union victory in the American Civil War and the subsequent abolishment of slavery would inspire a French return to democracy. In 1875 the statue was given a name, Liberty Enlightening the World, and fundraising began. The French would finance the statue and the Americans would pay for the pedestal.
A financial crisis in the United States made fundraising difficult and in 1884 The American Committee for the Statue of Liberty ran out of money. Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World newspaper, reminded subscribers that the common people of France had paid $250,000 for the statue and that his readers should not wait for millionaires to finance the American part of the project. In the next six months, about 125,000 readers donated over $100,000 ensuring that, even though the money came a dollar (or less) at a time, there would be a fitting pedestal for “a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America.”
Auguste Bartholdi was a sculptor and friend of Laboulaye. After visiting the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, Bartholdi became excited about designing a colossal statue (of a robed woman holding a torch) as a lighthouse for the Suez Canal. Egypt never pursued the project, but Laboulaye easily transitioned his original concept into a monument of freedom for the United States.
Bartholdi saw New York harbor as the gateway to America and knew at first sight that Bedloe’s Island would be the perfect place for Lady Liberty to greet every ship that entered the harbor. Not just her designer, Bartholdi became a great advocate of the Statue. To elicit support and funds for the project, Bartholdi personally accompanied the massive arm and torch to the United States so they could be displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
The arm and torch were the first parts completed in 1876. Two years later, Lady Liberty’s head and shoulders were displayed at the Paris Universal Exposition. The entire Statue was completed in 1884. She was assembled in Paris and presented to the United States Ambassador in July of that year, then dismantled for an oversee voyage to her new home. Arriving in July of 1985, the pedestal was not yet ready and Lady Liberty had to wait over a year to greet her adoring crowds.
Bartholdi oversaw the Statue’s reassembly, beginning with Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel’s iron framework. (Eiffel would go on to build the Eiffel tower in Paris.) Next steam driven cranes hoisted materials and the pieces necessary for reconstruction. On October 28th, after receiving a key to the city, Bartholdi climbed the Statue to release the French flag that veiled Lady Liberty’s face. Guns, whistles and the applause of a million onlookers filled the air and the statue glistened brightly in the rain.
The pedestal rises from a 11-point star shaped platform, the remaining walls of a land battery used in the early 1800s. The Lady herself is 151 feet tall, but including the base and the pedestal, the statue stands 305 feet tall at the entrance of New York Harbor. Lady Liberty’s mouth is three feet wide. Her eyes are each two feet, six inches across. Her forefinger is eight feet long. Thirty one tons of copper cover a 125 ton framework in sheets not quite the thickness of two pennies. The green color is from a patina resulting from the copper’s exposure to the elements.
The Statue of Liberty’s crown has seven spikes which represent the seven seas and seven continents around the world. In her left arm, she holds a tablet inscribed in Roman numerals with the date July 4, 1776 – the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In her raised right hand, she holds a beacon of light to welcome voyagers to America. Out of view by those on the ground, chains and a broken shackle lie at Lady Liberty’s feet and she is stepping forward with her left foot, indicating progress from bondage to freedom.
The original torch is now in the lobby. It was replaced in 1986 with a copper torch covered in 24k gold leaf that gleams in the sunlight of day or the floodlights at night.
In 1937, the island was turned over to the National Park Service and the next decades brought many improvements to the Statue’s surroundings. Dilapidated buildings (from the original Fort Wood) were removed. Trees, lawns and pathways were installed. By the time Bedloe became Liberty Island in 1956, visitors found her setting to be as lovely as the Lady herself.
A sonnet called The New Colossus was written by Emma Lazarus for a fundraising auction in 1883. Drawing from her work as an aide for Jewish immigrants and other refugees on Ward Island, Lazarus poem was deeply moving and immediately popular—appearing in both the New York World and the New York Times newspapers. Seventeen years after Lazarus’ death, a friend of hers found the sonnet in a book. Interest in the poem was renewed and it was eventually inscribed on a plaque and placed on the inner wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. You may know bits of Lazarus’ sonnet by heart: Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…