Statue of Liberty

Category: History

“The Two Sisters”
America probably could not have won its freedom from the British during the American Revolution without the help of the French. France provided arms, ships, money, and men to the American colonies. Some Frenchmen – most notably the Marquis de Lafayette, a close friend of George Washington – even became high-ranking officers in the American army. It was an alliance of respect and friendship the French would not forget.

Almost 100 years later, in 1865, according to Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, a successful 31-year-old sculptor, several French intellectuals opposed to the oppressive regime of Napoleon III were at a small dinner party discussing their admiration for America’s success in establishing a democratic government and abolishing slavery at the end of the Civil War. The dinner was hosted by Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye. Laboulaye was a scholar, jurist, abolitionist and a leader of the “liberals,” the political group dedicated to establishing a French republican government modeled on America’s constitution.

During the evening, talk turned to the close historic ties and love of liberty the two nations shared. Laboulaye noted there was “a genuine flow of sympathy” between the two nations, and called France and America “the two sisters.”

As he continued speaking, reflecting on the centennial of American independence only 11 years in the future, Laboulaye commented, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people in France gave the United States a great monument as a lasting memorial to independence and thereby showed that the French government was also dedicated to the idea of human liberty?”

Laboulaye’s casual question struck a responsive chord in Bartholdi. Years later, recalling the dinner, Bartholdi wrote that Laboulaye’s idea “interested me so deeply that it remained fixed in my memory.”

So was sown the seed of inspiration that would become the Statue of Liberty.

“To the sculptor form is everything and is nothing. It is nothing without the spirit – with the idea it is everything.”

– Victor Hugo, May 13, 1885

Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi

The sculptor who designed the Statue of Liberty, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, was born into a well-to-do middle-class family in Colmar, France, on August 2, 1834.

Bartholdi’s father, a civil servant and prosperous landowner, died when the child was only two years old, so he was raised by his stern, possessive mother, Charlotte.

Click for 35k jpeg

Many people believed Charlotte Bartholdi (1801-1891) was the model for the statue. Others thought it was based on her son’s early drawings for a never-commissioned statue in Egypt. The sculptor’s true inspiration for his masterpiece remains a mystery.

Bartholdi began his career as a painter, but it was as a sculptor that he was to express his true spirit and gain his greatest fame. His first commission for a public monument came to him at the young age of 18. It was for a statue of one of Colmar’s native sons, General Jean Rapp, one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s generals. Even at 18, Bartholdi loved bigness. The statue of the general was 12 feet tall and was removed from Bartholdi’s studio with only one inch to spare. The statue established his reputation as a sculptor of note and led to commissions for similar oversized patriotic works.

A man of his time, Bartholdi wasn’t alone in his passion for art on a grand scale. During the 19th century, large-scale public monuments were an especially popular art form. It was an age of ostentation, largely inspired by classical Greek and Roman civilizations. Most monuments reflected either the dress or architecture of these ancient times, so the artistic style of the 19th century came to be known as neoclassical. However, it was a trip to Egypt that was to shift his artistic perspective from simply grand to colossal. The overwhelming size and mysterious majesty of the Pyramids and the Sphinx were awesome to the enthusiastic young Bartholdi. He wrote, “Their kindly and impassive glance seems to ignore the present and to be fixed upon an unlimited future.”

While visiting Egypt, Bartholdi met a fellow Frenchman with ideas as big as his own, who was to become his friend for life. Count Ferdinand-Marie de Lesseps dreamed of piercing the desert with a canal that would run from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. While others first laughed at de Lesseps, Bartholdi was inspired by the magnitude of the idea. As a sculptor, he envisioned a giant lighthouse standing at the entrance to de Lesseps’s canal. It would be patterned after the Roman goddess Libertas, and twice the size of the Sphinx.

In 1867, when de Lesseps’s idea, the Suez Canal, was nearing completion, Bartholdi drew up plans for his statue. It was to be in the form of a robed female Egyptian peasant, a falaha, with light beaming out from both a headband and a torch thrust dramatically upward into the skies. Its theme? “Progress” or “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia.” (Years later, Bartholdi denied any association between “Progress” and the final design for the Statue of Liberty.) Bartholdi presented his plans for “Progress” to the Egyptian ruler, Isma’il Pasha, in 1867 and, with revisions, again in 1869. But the project was never commissioned.

In 1870, with the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, Bartholdi temporarily changed careers; he became a major in the French army and was stationed in his home city of Colmar. When the Germans annexed the entire Alsace region, making its residents German citizens, the reality of the word “liberty” took on a new, personal meaning for Bartholdi.

In time, France’s Third Republic, patterned somewhat after the democratic government of the United States, would emerge out of the ruins of the Franco-Prussian War. Meanwhile, partially as propaganda to advance the cause of those who were seeking the creation of a French republic, Laboulaye suggested that Bartholdi should travel to America.

In recalling his conversation with Laboulaye several years later, Bartholdi wrote: ” ‘Go to see that country,’ said he [Laboulaye] to me. ‘Propose to our friends over there to make with us a monument, a common work, in remembrance of the ancient friendship of France and the United States. If … you find a plan that will excite public enthusiasm, we are convinced that it will be successful on both continents, and we will do a work that will have far-reaching moral effect.’ ”

Bartholdi responded, “I will try to glorify the Republic and Liberty over there, in the hope that someday I will find it again here.”

So, armed with letters of introduction from Laboulaye to some of America’s most influential men, Bartholdi sailed aboard the Pereire from Le Havre, France, for New York on June 8, 1871. He was now to become a salesman as well as a soldier and visionary sculptor.

He found the perfect spot for his monument to independence even before he landed on America’s shores. Writing of his entrance into New York Harbor, he said:

“The picture that is presented to the view when one arrives in New York is marvelous, when, after some days of voyaging, in the pearly radiance of a beautiful morning is revealed the magnificent spectacle of those immense cities [Brooklyn and Manhattan], of those rivers extending as far as the eye can reach, festooned with masts and flags; when one awakes, so to speak, in the midst of that interior sea covered with vessels … it is thrilling. It is, indeed, the New World, which appears in its majestic expanse, with the ardor of its glowing life.”

New York was the perfect locale, he added, since it was “where people get their first view of the New World.” Continuing, he said, “I’ve found an admirable spot. It is Bedloe’s Island, in the middle of the bay.… The island belongs to the government; it’s on national territory, be-longing to all the states, just opposite the Narrows, which are, so to speak, the gateway to America.”

Intelligent and articulate, persuasive and charming, Bartholdi’s silver tongue and personal warmth were major assets as he met many prominent American figures of the day, President Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Horace Greeley, and Senator Charles Sumner among them.

His trip across America, like his trip to Egypt, filled him with amazement. He was stunned by the vastness of the prairies, the soaring spectacle of the Rockies, and the awesome sight of the Pacific Coast redwood forests. On his way home to France he wrote, “Everything in America is big.… Here, even the peas are big.”

Everywhere he went, he carried a sketch of the statue as it would appear on the island in New York Harbor; he also had a small model of it with him. And, everywhere he went, he enthusiastically promoted the project. Americans seemed receptive to the idea of a statue dedicated to “Liberty Enlightening the World” (the official name for the statue), but no one was willing to make a commitment of money or a building site.

Meanwhile, back in France, Laboulaye was biding his time. He realized that it would be premature to publicize the idea of the statue until the Third Republic became a reality. On his return to France, Bartholdi completed other projects, including the monument of the Marquis de Lafayette that was presented to the city of New York as a gift from France in 1876. At the same time he refined his ideas and design for “the American statue.”

In 1874, with the establishment of the Third Republic, Laboulaye and Bartholdi agreed that “the lady’s” time had come. Because the statue would be prohibitively expensive to produce, they decided its cost should be shared: France would pay for the statue; America would pay for its pedestal and foundation. A fund-raising committee called the Franco-American Union was formed, with members from both nations.

An appeal for funds to underwrite the cost of creating the statue was launched in French newspapers in September 1875. The committee’s goal was to present the Statue of Liberty to the United States on July 4, 1876, in honor of America’s centennial.

Elaborate fundraising events were staged: a banquet at the Grand Hotel de Louvre in November 1875; a gala benefit performance of a new Liberty Cantata by French composer Charles Gounod at the Paris Opera. But money was slow in coming. Enough was collected to begin work on the statue, but the goal of completing it in time for America’s 100th anniversary was impossible.

Work Begins

Bartholdi selected Caget, Gauthier and Company as his workshop. Its craftsmen were experts in the art of repoussé, a technique for creating sculptural forms by hammering sheet metal inside molds. (Both stone and bronze had been discounted as materials due to their weight and expense.) Lighter than cast metal, repoussé was the only method available that would allow such a monumental work to be shipped overseas.

The intricate skeleton for the statue was to be designed by famed engineer Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, already known
for his brilliant iron railroad bridges, and later celebrated for the Eiffel Tower.

Bartholdi decided that if the statue could not be completed in time for America’s centennial celebration, at least the raised arm and torch could be finished for showing at the International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. While 300,000 Frenchmen paid to watch the work in progress, 20 men worked 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, to meet the deadline. But, even with “overtime,” the section was not finished in time for the opening of the exhibition, although it did arrive in the fall, before the fair closed.

Bartholdi was chosen as an official French representative to the Centennial Exhibition. Two of his works were to be shown, the statue of Lafayette (which was not actually unveiled until September 1876) and a monumental fountain, which was prominently placed in front of the main exhibition hall.

On July 4, 1876, Bartholdi somewhat superstitiously traveled to Bedloe’s Island, the site he had already chosen for his statue. While there, he remarked that it would be nice if the island were called Liberty Island. (Eighty years later, in 1956, the name of Bedloe’s Island was officially changed to Liberty Island.)

The 30-foot arm of Liberty finally arrived in Philadelphia in August 1876. For 50 cents, a visitor could climb a steel ladder leading to the balcony surrounding the torch. This unique experience created a good deal of enthusiasm for the project, since Liberty would be the first statue one could climb inside.

With three major pieces on view at the Centennial Exhibition, Bartholdi’s name as a sculptor was becoming known in America.

The visit was also to become memorable on a more personal level. During a trip to Montreal, the sculptor renewed his acquaintance with Jeanne-Emilie Baheux de Puysieux, a woman he had first met at the home of his good friend John La Farge. On December 20, 1876, Frédéric-Auguste and Jeanne-Emilie were married.

Returning to France, Bartholdi set himself a new goal: to complete the statue’s head for the opening of the Paris World’s Fair in May 1878. Unfortunately, Liberty was to be a lady who was always late. The gleaming copper head was not finished until June. When her head finally did appear at the fair, “My daughter Liberty,” as Bartholdi had begun calling her, was a sensation. But she wasn’t sensational enough to solve the never-ending problem of raising the money needed to complete her construction. Finally, someone with the Franco-American Union had an inspiration; they would hold a lottery to raise funds.

Fundraising in France

Since very few contributions for building the statue were coming from France’s moneyed elite, the idea of engaging the public’s attention with a lottery was a brilliant one. The prizes were substantial: a silver plate set worth 20,000 francs (about $20,000); jewelry fashioned from pearls and gems, worth 5,000 francs; plus two works by Bartholdi, a terra cotta copy of a statue honoring the military engineer the Marquis Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, and a painting called The Wave.

Additional funds were raised in a manner worthy of contemporary merchandising techniques: a signed and numbered collection of clay models entitled “Models of the Committee,” bearing the Franco-American Union’s seal, were sold for 1,000 francs each in France and for $3,000 each in America. The buyer’s name could be engraved in the clay before the statue was baked.

By the end of 1879, about 250,000 francs had been raised for the statue’s construction. Enough, most people thought, to complete the work.


On October 24, 1881, the American ambassador to France, Levi P. Morton, drove the first rivet into the statue, an event that attracted international attention. By December, Bartholdi wrote his American compatriots that “The statue commences to reach above the houses, and next spring one will see it overlook the entire city.”

In the winter of 1883 Laboulaye died, never to see his dream come to life.

At last, in June 1884, Liberty received her final touches. She was dedicated with much pomp and circumstance by French Prime Minister Jules Ferry and Ambassador Morton. But when Bartholdi invited the celebrating party to join him in climbing the statue’s steps, few accepted the challenge.

Until the spring of 1885, when she was dismantled for the long voyage to America, Liberty remained in Paris, the hostess to thousands of French visitors.

All the while, Bartholdi assumed that the statue’s base was also nearing completion. He assumed too much.

Fund-raising in the United States

While construction of the statue was nearing completion in France, little was happening on the American side of the Atlantic.

The American press continued to be critical of the project, especially of its cost. They simply couldn’t understand why the pedestal for the statue should cost as much as the statue itself. Congress rejected a bill appropriating $100,000 for the base. New York did approve a grant of $50,000, but the expenditure was vetoed by the governor.

Many Americans outside of New York considered it New York’s statue. “Let New York pay for it,” they said, while America’s newly rich self-made millionaires were saying and contributing nothing. The American half of the Franco-American Union, led by William M. Evarts, held the usual fund-raising events, but public apathy was almost as monumental as the statue itself.

By 1884, after years of fund-raising, only $182,491 had been collected, and $179,624 had been spent. It took the intervention of Joseph Pulitzer and the power of the media to make a difference.

Pulitzer to the Rescue

Joseph Pulitzer was a Hungarian immigrant who fought in the Civil War, be-came a successful journalist, and married a wealthy woman. In 1883, when he bought a financial newspaper called the World, he already owned the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. When he heard that the Statue of Liberty was about to die from lack of funds, he saw his chance to take advantage of three distinct opportunities: to raise funds for the statue, to increase his newspaper’s circulation, and to blast the rich for their selfishness.

Pulitzer set the fund-raising goal of the World at $100,000. In its pages he taunted the rich (thereby increasing the paper’s circulation among working-class people) and firmly planted the notion that the statue was a monument not just for New York City but, indeed, for all of America.

Perhaps Pulitzer’s cleverest ploy was the promise to publish the name of every single contributor in the pages of the World, no matter how small the contribution. The editorial that opened the fund-raising campaign set its tone. He wrote: “The World is the people’s paper and it now appeals to the people to come forward and raise the money [for the statue’s pedestal].” The statue, he said, was paid for by “the masses of the French people. Let us respond in like manner. Let us not wait for the millionaires to give this money. It is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America.”

The circulation of the World increased by almost 50,000 copies. African-American newspapers joined in the effort, encouraging their readers to contribute to a monument that would, in part, commemorate the end of slavery. So the money poured in, from single-dollar donations from grandmothers to pennies from the piggybanks of schoolchildren.

On June 15, 1885, the Statue of Liberty – inside 214 wooden packing crates – arrived at Bedloe’s Island.

On August 11, 1885, the front page of the World proclaimed, “ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS!” The goal had been reached, and slightly exceeded, thanks to more than 120,000 individual contributions.

The Place on Which She Stands

The American Committee had selected an architect for Liberty’s pedestal back in December 1881. He was Richard Morris Hunt, a highly respected designer of expensive homes, who was enormously popular with the wealthy set of New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Hunt submitted a number of drawings for the pedestal, and one was selected by the committee in 1884. The winning design was for an 89-foot-high pedestal that would sit upon a concrete foundation appearing to grow up from within the 11-pointed-star-shaped walls of Fort Wood. His fee for the project was $1,000, which he promptly returned to the fund to reassemble the statue.

General Charles P. Stone was the chief engineer in charge of the entire construction project, including the foundation, the pedestal, and the reassembly of the statue.

The foundation alone required 24,000 tons of concrete, the largest single mass at that time ever poured. It measures 52 feet, 10 inches high. At the bottom it is 91 feet square; at the top it is 65 feet square. The pedestal rises 89 feet above the foundation.

The Statue of Liberty began to rise over her new home in America in May 1886. It would take six months to mount the statue to her base.

The Dream Accomplished

On October 25, 1886, Bartholdi and his wife, accompanied by Count Ferdinand-Marie de Lesseps, chairman of the French Committee, arrived in America. They were greeted by the American Committee and Joseph Pulitzer. At Bedloe’s Island, surrounded by newspaper reporters recording his words for posterity, Bartholdi simply said, “The dream of my life is accomplished.”

The Unveiling of “The Lady”

Unveiling day – October 28, 1886 – was a public holiday. It was also rainy and foggy, but the weather could not dampen the spirits of the more than 1 million people who lined New York’s bunting- and French-tricolor-draped streets to watch a parade of more than 20,000 pass by. Wall Street was the only area of the city working that day. The New York Times reported that as the parade passed by, the office boys “… from a hundred windows began to unreel the spools of tape that record the fateful messages of the ‘ticker.’ In a moment the air was white with curling streamers.” And so the famous New York ticker-tape parade was born.

Dignitaries from both nations were in abundant attendance. Representing America were President Grover Cleveland and members of his cabinet, as well as the governor of New York and his staff. The French ambassador attended, accompanied by the French Committee. And, most ironically, members of some of America’s wealthiest families – the same families who had not contributed a single cent to the statue’s pedestal – now jockeyed for seats of prominence.

New York, reported the World, “was one vast cheer.”

Out on the water, fog alternately rolled in and out, as though following the movement of the waves in the harbor. The harbor teemed with ships of all sizes, from the 250 vessels of the North Atlantic Squadron to tugs, ferries, freighters, and dinghies. Bartholdi stood alone in the head of the statue. It was to be his task to pull a cord that would drop the French tricolor veil from the face of the statue. For his cue, Bartholdi was to watch for a signal from a boy on the ground below, who would wave a handkerchief. The signal would come when Senator William M. Evarts, considered one of the more long-winded speakers of his time, finished his presentation speech.

Evarts began his speech, stopped momentarily to take a breath, and the boy, thinking the speech was over, gave Bartholdi the signal.

Bartholdi pulled the cord, revealing the statue’s gleaming copper face to the world. Whistles blasted, guns roared, bands played … and Evarts sat down.

When it was President Cleveland’s turn to speak, he said, “We will not forget that Liberty has made here her home, nor shall her chosen altar be neglected.”

Now, more than 100 years later, neither she nor her chosen altar has been neglected.

Liberty’s First 100 Years

At the time the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, she was the tallest structure in New York, reaching to a total height of 305 feet. It wasn’t until 1899 that she was overtaken by Saint Paul’s Building, which rose to 310 feet. Today, of course, she is architecturally dwarfed by most buildings in lower Manhattan. Yet she remains the visual and spiritual center of New York Harbor.

From 1886 to 1902, the Statue of Liberty was maintained by the Lighthouse Board, an agency of the federal government, in conjunction with the Army and the American Committee. In 1901, the War Department assumed responsibility, making some much-needed repairs and improvements to the statue and the island.

In 1903, one of the most memorable changes to the statue occurred, without fanfare or publicity, when a bronze tablet was fastened to an interior wall of the pedestal. Cast as a part of the plaque was a poem written in 1883 that has become the credo for thousands of immigrants coming to America.

The poem, The New Colossus, was written by Emma Lazarus to help raise funds for the construction of the statue’s pedestal. Today, many people think of the Statue of Liberty and the poem as inseparable.

In 1916, the World once again raised its voice to raise funds on behalf of the statue. This time, the goal was to floodlight the statue at night. The paper’s readers contributed $30,000, and the torch was also redesigned in glass.

From the time of the Revolutionary War, the female figure Columbia was generally regarded as the symbol for America, but the statue’s increased visibility and popularity during World War I easily shifted America’s symbolic loyalties. Liberty’s features appeared everywhere; she became a kind of female equivalent to Uncle Sam. To help finance U.S. participation in the war, the Treasury Department authorized using the statue as a rallying symbol on posters to raise funds. The government sold about $15 billion worth of bonds, equal to about half the cost of World War I.

President Calvin Coolidge declared the Statue of Liberty to be a national monument on October 15, 1924. In 1933 the NPS took over administration and maintenance of the statue.

The French-American Committee for the Restoration of the Statue of Liberty was established in 1981. Following an initial diagnostic report for the NPS, it was determined that substantial work needed to be done. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation was then formed to raise the needed funds and to oversee the restoration of both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Again, as in the past, private contributions were the backbone of the foundation’s success: More than $295 million was collected, with $86 million going to the statue’s restoration.

On July 4, 1986, America threw a birthday party for the Statue of Liberty that will not soon be forgotten. With a golden sunset glowing in the background, President Ronald Reagan declared, “We are the keepers of the flame of liberty; we hold it high for the world to see.” Later that day, the president pressed a button that sent a laser beam across the water toward the statue. Slowly, dramatically, majestically, a light show unveiled Liberty and her new torch, and the most spectacular fireworks show America had ever seen exploded across the sky. With an entire nation watching – along with 1.5 billion television viewers around the world – and thousands of people filled with gratitude, one wonders how Bartholdi and Laboulaye might have felt as Liberty enlightened the world that historic night.


One Response

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