Today we celebrated Christmas by taking a long walk up the Champs Elysees, then veering over to the Eiffel Tower. It wasn’t nearly as crowded as it has been during past visits, but the place was still packed — and the vendors still hawked rings of Eiffel Tower figurines, large and small. If the Eiffel Tower had not been created by Gustave Eiffel way back when, it would have to have been invented by souvenir peddlers.
On this Fourth of July, I am thinking of the enduring power of the Statue of Liberty and its special place in the American imagination. How many Americans have a photograph, or (in our case) metal miniature, or some other representation of the Statue of Liberty in their homes?
The symbolism of this colossal statue is intensely powerful, both inspirational and aspirational, plucking at the chords of the American psyche — and the back story of the statue is a large contributor to that symbolic power.
The story begins in 1865 as the idea of a Frenchman, Edouard de Laboulaye, who wanted to recognize the survival of democracy and demise of slavery in the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War — and who also wanted to encourage democracy in France itself. The Statue of Liberty thus became a gift from the people of France, to commemorate the distinctive achievement of American democracy and to celebrate the friendship of the two nations. Americans should forever be grateful to the people of France for their generosity.
Artist Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi was hired to create the statue. In a visit to the United States in 1874, he selected Bedloe’s Island (since renamed Liberty Island) as the location for the statue. He decided to build the statue of copper, using a technique in which the copper was hammered to extraordinary thinness — only 3/32 of an inch thick — and then built over a metal skeleton. French engineer Gustave Eiffel, later to grace Paris with the famous landmark that bears his name, designed a massive pylon and metal skeleton that allows the statue to stand upright and also move in response to the winds in New York harbor.
It was decided that while the French would be responsible for the cost of statue, Americans would pay for the pedestal. When fundraising for the pedestal dragged, Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of The World and later the father of the Pulitzer Prizes, decided to campaign for the completion of fundraising, writing a series of blistering editorials that excoriated the wealthy and the middle class for their miserly failure to support the fundraising effort.
The statute was completed in France in 1884, disassembled, and shipped to America to be reassembled atop the towering pedestal. The Statue of Liberty was completed and officially dedicated on October 28, 1886 — just in time for Lady Liberty’s awesome visage to welcome the millions of hopeful immigrants who were streaming to nearby Ellis Island to begin their lives in America.
The statue itself is called Statue Of Liberty Enlightening The World, with stolid Lady Liberty standing amid broken and cast-off shackles. She carries a tablet inscribed with the July 4, 1776 date of the Declaration of Independence and strides forward, holding aloft a torch of freedom. Her crown has seven rays, one of each of the continents. The New Colossus, a famous sonnet by Emma Lazarus that celebrates the goal of liberty and freedom for the world’s oppressed, is engraved on a tablet within the pedestal.
There is a reason why, when the original Planet of the Apes sought to shock audiences with the disclosure that the planet was really a future Earth, it did so by having Charlton Heston come upon a partially buried Statue of Liberty. The buried remains of the statue packed an emotional punch because it was a tangible sign that the American experiment had failed. The Statue of Liberty is inexorably bound up with the hopes and dreams of the world’s enslaved and oppressed peoples, and serves as a constant reminder of the obligation of all current Americans, having inherited this great land of freedom, to continue its legacy of liberty, democracy, and opportunity.
Happy Fourth of July to all!