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After the US Civil War, the French historian Edouard de Laboulaye floated the idea of creating a large monument to honor the success of the United States in creating and maintaining a democracy.
Almost 20 years later, after significant time in fundraising, design, and construction, the new statue was unveiled to the public in New York Harbor.
Since then, the gift of France has become a symbol not just of New York but of the United States and has inspired other similar statues around the world.
Learn more about the Statue of Liberty and how and why it was built on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The Statue of Liberty had its inception at a dinner held in 1865 outside of the city of Versailles in France.
The French historian and abolitionist Édouard de Laboulaye was lamenting the state of French democracy under Napoleon III and was lauding the United States for having abolished slavery and preserving its democracy in an after-dinner conversation with the sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi.
He is reported to have said, “If a monument should rise in the United States, as a memorial to their independence, I should think it only natural if it were built by united effort—a common work of both our nations.”
It wasn’t intended to be a plan or the start of a project. It was really just an off-hand comment.
It also might very well be the case that this entire story is apocryphal, and the planning for the statue didn’t start until 1870.
Regardless of when the idea originated, Laboulaye and Bartholdi were definitely involved.
Bartholdi had an idea in the late 1860s for a giant sculpture that would stand at the entrance to the brand-new Suez Canal. The statue was to be titled “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia.” The early designs of the sculpture were of a woman in robes on top of a pedestal, holding a torch. If that sounds familiar, you are not mistaken.
The statue was intended to be 86 feet or 26 meters tall with the pedestal, but it was never constructed because the Ottoman ruler of Egypt couldn’t afford it.
The Franco-Prussian War put any plans on hold, but by 1871 the war was over, there was a new republic established in France, and Bartholdi crossed the Atlantic to meet with Americans in New York.
His idea for the location of the statue was one of the first things he saw when he sailed into New York Harbor, a small island known as Bedloe’s Island. What he liked about it is that every ship that sailed into New York would have to sail right past it.
It turned out the island was federal property, not privately owned or even owned by the state or city of New York.
Bartholdi crisscrossed the country, meeting with as many influential Americans as he could, including the president, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant promised the use of Bedloe’s Island for the statue, as it was originally intended for a fort to defend New York harbor, which was never built.
However, despite getting support from prominent Americans, he felt that popular support for the project was still lacking in both France and the United States. So he sailed back to Europe and began work on prototypes of the design.
The biggest thing was how to embody the idea of American liberty and democracy.
One of the traditional means of embodying a country was via a female avatar. In Britain, she is known as Britannia. In France, she is known as Marianne. In the United States, the female embodiment is known as Columbia.
However, there was another female who was used as the embodiment of liberty. This was the Roman goddess Libertas.
In ancient Rome, Libertas was the goddess who was worshipped by freed slaves and was also put on coins by Julius Caesar’s assassins.
The United States had frequently been using a female embodiment of liberty in its coins and artwork in the mid and late 19th century.
So, it was decided to create the statue with a female embodiment of liberty. It wasn’t explicitly to be the Roman goddess Libertas, but it was heavily based on her.
Many of the French depictions of liberty in the 19th century, such as Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People, showed her engaged in war.
Bartholdi, however, explicitly did not want his representation of liberty to evoke a sense of war, so he place her in a robe. Technically, what she is wearing is known as a stola, which was a garment worn by Roman women, which was the female equivalent of a toga. Again, the comparisons to the goddess Libertas are pretty clear.
The other thing which all of his early prototypes had was liberty holding a torch.
After several years of improvements and changes to his design, in 1875 he finally went public with his project dubbed the Franco-American Union, and the statue was finally given a formal name: Liberty Enlightening the World, or as it is known in French La Liberté éclairant le monde.
Liberty Enlightening the World is the official name of the statue. The Statue of Liberty is just the colloquial name used to refer to it.
The plan was that the statue would be a joint project between France and the United States. France would pay for and build the statue itself, and the US would build the pedestal and provide the land.
Reaction in France was generally positive towards the project but not universally so.
Tens of thousands of ordinary people around France chipped in. The French industrialist Eugène Secrétan donated over half of the copper required for the statue.
The first thing built was the arm holding the torch. The entire plan for the statue hadn’t been finalized, but the torch was built first to promote the project. It was sent to New York, where it was displayed at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876. After the event’s completion, it was moved to Madison Square Park.
Bartholdi traveled to the United States again to drum up support, most of which came from people in New York.
On the last day of his administration, President Grant signed a law to accept the statue on behalf of the United States upon its completion. The next day, the first day of the Rutherford B. Hayes administration, Bedloe’s Island was formally accepted as the site of the statue.
The head was unveiled at the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris. Around this time, he hired an engineer by the name of Gustav Eiffel. Eiffel, whose name you probably recognize from the tower which bears his name, developed the internal iron structure which bore the load. The exterior skin of the statue was supported by the interior structure, which also allowed the statue to move a bit in the wind and to expand and contract due to heat.
The original plan prior to Eiffel was to create a rigid masonry structure on the inside.
This design also allowed for the entire statue to be assembled in France, then disassembled in parts and shipped to New York.
Assembly began in France in 1881, and by 1882, the statue was complete to the waist. The completed statue was unveiled in Paris on July 4, 1884.
However, progress had stalled on the construction of the base back in New York. The Panic of 1873 had stalled fundraising for the statue and other projects like the Washington Monument.
The statue arrived in New York in June 1885, but funding for the pedestal and its construction wasn’t completed until April 1886.
Once the pedestal was done, construction of the actual statue began. Steel beams were sunk into the concrete core of the pedestal, after which the copper exterior could begin to be attached. Because all of the parts were already fabricated in France, construction of the statue was relatively fast.
It was dedicated with great fanfare on October 28, 1886, by President of the United States, Grover Cleveland. The dedication had a procession of dignitaries who made their way down Manhattan, and along they way, they passed Wall Street, where traders threw their used ticker tape out of the windows.
This was the very first ticker tape parade.
The final design of the statue had several features which were not in the original prototypes.
For starters, the image of the woman was supposedly based on Bartholdi’s mother.
Second is there was debate as to what she should hold in her non-torch hand. One idea was to have her carry a broken chain to signify the end of slavery, but that was rejected as the Civil War was still considered to be a sensitive topic.
In the final version, she is holding a tablet with the date July 4, 1776, in Roman Numerals.
One thing that most people don’t realize is that from the back of the statue, the heel of her right foot is raised as if she is taking a step. She is also walking over a broken shackle and chain. The original item which was to appear in her left hand.
If you were to go back in time to the dedication of the statue of liberty, you’d notice something odd about it. It was a different color than it is today.
The original color was copper colored, because the skin is literally made out of copper. Around 1900, it started to turn green in spots due to oxidation. By 1902 it was advanced enough to be noted in the press, and by 1906 the entire statue was green.
The government originally wanted to paint the statue to protect it from oxidation, but a scientific review found that the oxidized layer actually protected the statue, so it was left alone.
The upkeep and maintenance of the statue was originally handled by the United States Lighthouse Board because the torch was considered to be a navigational beacon.
Control was passed to the War Department in 1901 and then finally to the National Park Service in 1933.
The name of the island was officially changed from Bedlow’s Island to Liberty Island in 1956.
Liberty Island itself has been a source of controversy over the years. If you look at a map of New York Harbor, Liberty Island lies squarely within the state of New Jersey, as does nearby Ellis Island. The maritime border between the two states was established as far back as the original colonial charter in 1664.
However, New York and New Jersey have battled for 200 years over which state the island was part of. A state compact which was ratified by congress in 1834, has been considered the last word on the matter, even though New Jersey has continued to try and press their case in court.
The end result is that Liberty Island is an exclave of New York State which is totally surrounded by New Jersey.
When the statue was built, New York Harbor wasn’t yet the main point of entry for European immigrants. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nearby Ellis Island became the primary processing facility for new immigrants, and the statue took on the role of a welcoming symbol to newly arrived Americans.
In the 1980s, as the 100th anniversary of the statue approached, a team of engineers did an evaluation of the statue and determined that it was in need of serious repairs. Structurally, the right arm was in danger of falling off, and there was significant corrosion inside. Moreover, there were slight problems with the initial assembly of the statue, which had compounded over the years.
There were holes in the skin, and there was a significant amount of asbestos that was used in construction. A private fundraising campaign was conducted, which raised $350 million dollars, and the statue was closed in 1984 for restoration.
The biggest change to the statue was that the original torch was replaced. The original torch was made of metal and glass with an internal light that shone through the glass.
The new torch is covered in 24 carrot gold leaf and is illuminated by lights from outside the torch.
The old torch was moved to the Statue of Liberty museum, which is located on Liberty Island.
The Statue of Liberty was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 and today is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
Visiting the monument is free, but you do have to pay for a ticket to travel there, and no personal craft are allowed to dock. If you want to climb the pedestal or go up to the observation deck in the crown of the statue, you need to get a reservation in advance.
I’ll close by making a note of a poem that was made famous by the statue. As part of the fundraising campaign in 1883, a poem was commissioned for the poet Emma Lazarus.
Titled “The New Colossus,” it was used for funding raising activity but then forgotten and not used when the statue was dedicated. However, it was revived by local newspapers, and a bronze plaque with the poem was installed on the pedestal 1906.
Since then, the poem and its closing lines have come to define the statue. It reads:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener FattyFaye over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
There’s nothing I can write that hasn’t been said by other 5-star reviewers, so I’ll simply say this. You feed my mind. And my soul. (Daily!) Thank you, Gary.
Thank you, Faye! I’ve gotten many reviews regarding the educational content of the show, but this is the first which addresses the spiritual. I might have to establish the Everything Everywhere church so I can perform wedding ceremonies.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.