The Statue of Liberty – A Universal Symbol of Political Freedom and Democracy
By Donna K. Keesling
You probably know her as the Statue of Liberty or Lady Liberty, but her given name is Liberty Enlightening the World. Created to celebrate the relationship between France and the United States, the statue has stood in New York Harbor for over 135 years. Because of its prominent position in the middle of the harbor, it is clearly viewed from New York and New Jersey, and from vessels in the harbor. According to the National Park Service “the Statue commemorates friendship, democratic government, and the abolition of slavery.”
Édouard de Laboulaye, a prominent French political thinker, professor of American democracy, and president of the French Anti-Slavery Society, proposed creating a monument for the United States in 1865. He argued that honoring the United States after the recent Union victory in the Civil War would “strengthen the cause for democracy in France.”Congress authorized acceptance of the sculpture as a commemorative monument of art in 1877.
Ten years after proposing the project, de Laboulaye formed the Franco-American Union to raise funds for the statue. It was decided that the French people would finance the statue and the American people would pay for the construction of a pedestal upon which it would stand. In its public announcement in newspapers, the Union emphasized that the statue would “preserve memories of the French and American collaboration during the American War for Independence.”Individual citizens and municipalities in France sent contributions, and fundraising events were held to attract larger donations.
Initially, the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty, formed to raise funds from the American people was successful. However, many citizens thought the statue was a “superfluous expenditure” considering the state of the economy following the Civil War. In 1882, the Committee restarted its fundraising efforts and held a number of benefit art fairs, lectures, concerts, and other performances.
It was for one of the art fairs that Emma Lazarus penned these famous words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” The phrase is part of a sonnet titled The New Colossus written by Lazarus in 1883. William Maxwell Evarts, who served as chairman of the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty, asked Lazarus to write the sonnet for an art and literary auction to raise funds for the Statue’s pedestal. The sonnet was later inscribed on a bronze plaque and placed in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903.
Despite their fundraising efforts, in 1884 the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty ran out of funds for the Statue’s pedestal. Joseph Pulitzer, newspaper publisher of the New York World, then urged the American public to donate money towards the pedestal and raised over $100,000 in six months – which was more than enough to fund the completion of the pedestal.
It was the sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who selected Bedloe’s Island as the site for the planned sculpture. He had traveled to the United States in 1871 to seek support for the project and to find a suitable location. Bedloe’s Island was the site of Fort Wood, an 11-point star-shaped granite fort built between1808 and 1811 to defend the harbor. Bartholdi viewed New York Harbor as the “gateway to America” and by placing the statue on Bedloe’s Island, it would be visible to every ship entering the harbor. In 1877, President Ulysses S. Grant designated Bedloe’s Island as the permanent site for the Statue.
Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor who studied at Lycée Louis-le-Grand, was at a dinner party at de Laboulaye’s home when he first proposed a monument to liberty for the United States. Bartholdi, who on a trip to Egypt saw colossal granite statues, was searching for his own opportunity to design a “colossal” statue. Bartholdi took up de Laboulaye’s idea of a sculpture that would be “a gift of friendship between two countries with democratic ideals, America and France.”
Bartholdi began designing the statue in 1870. His design incorporated specific symbolic elements, including the torch in her right hand representing “enlightenment” and a tablet of the law – inscribed with July 4, 1776 in Roman numerals, the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence – in her left arm. At her left foot is a trampled broken chain, most likely representing the end of slavery in the United States. Her crown, with its spikes, evokes sun rays extending out to the world.
Bartholdi chose a method of construction for the sculptural form known as repousse which involved hammering thin copper sheets against forms from the reverse side. Under his direction, French artisans and craftsmen began constructing the statue in France in 1876.
Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, a French architect and structural engineer, was selected to design the internal structural elements of the statue following the unexpected death of the initial internal designer, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Eiffel designed a flexible, skeletal system to support the copper skin of the statue. The primary support structure for the statue is a 92-foot tall pylon. Attached to it is a lightweight truss work of complex asymmetrical girders which create flexible suspension and act as springs, allowing the statue to withstand wind and weather changes.
Richard Morris Hunt, the first American to attend the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, designed the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal on commission from the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty. It took two years to reach a design that was satisfactory to both him and Bartholdi. In 1884, construction of the pedestal began.
The construction of the statue in France was completed in July 1884. The statue was disassembled, and its 350 pieces were packed into 214 crates to be shipped to the United States on a French frigate named Isere. On June 17, 1885 Liberty Enlightening the World arrived in New York.
In April 1886, construction of the granite pedestal within Fort Wood on Bedloe’s Island was completed. After the statue arrived, it took four months to reassemble it on the granite pedestal.
On October 28, 1886 Liberty Enlightening the World was dedicated and President Grover Cleveland formally accepted it on behalf of the United States of America as a gift of friendship from France. Although it was a rainy, foggy day, a water parade of 300 or so vessels passed in front of the statue. New York City held its first ticker tape parade in honor of the dedication, with more than one million people in attendance.
Initially, administration of the Statue was the responsibility of the United States Light-House Board. In 1902, it was transferred to the U.S. Army. The Statue of Liberty and its pedestal was declared a national monument in 1924. It was transferred to the National Park Service (NPS) in 1933. When the National Park Service took over administration of the Statue of Liberty, they developed a master plan to remove all military structures on the island except for Fort Wood and create a landscaped park. Bedloe’s Island was renamed “Liberty Island” by an act of Congress in 1956.
In anticipation of the Statue’s centennial anniversary, the entire monument underwent a major restoration from 1982 – 1986. Following the direction of a team of French and American architects, engineers, and conservators, holes in the copper skin were repaired and rusting iron armature bars were replaced with stainless steel bars. Because the upper portion of the torch and flame had been severely damaged by water, an exact replica of Bartholdi’s original torch was made to replace it. The original torch was placed on display inside the pedestal, where it remained until 2018 when it was moved to the new Statue of Liberty Museum.
In 1984, the Statue of Liberty was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, concluding that it “… is a masterpiece of the creative spirit of man” and is “directly and materially associated with an event of outstanding universal significance: the populating of the United States, the melting pot of disparate peoples in the second half of the 19th century.”
You can visit the Statue of Liberty, including the Statue of Liberty Museum and the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, by making a reservation and purchasing ferry tickets through the National Park Service’s Plan Your Visitpage. As you approach the Statue by ferry, imagine what it was like for the nearly 14 million immigrants who entered the United States between 1886 and 1924 – Lady Liberty welcoming them to a land of hope and opportunity.
 Foundation Document – Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island (National Park Service, July 2018), 7.
 “Édouard de Laboulaye,” National Park Service, last updated May 19, 2019, accessed March 4, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/edouard-de-laboulaye.htm.
 Yasmin Sabina Khan, Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2010), 123.
 “Creating the Statue of Liberty,” National Park Service, last updated February 7, 2023, accessed March 7, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/places_creating_statue.htm.
 “Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi,” National Park Service, last updated August 17, 2021, accessed March 4, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/frederic-auguste-bartholdi.htm.
 Yasmin Sabina Khan, Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2010), 125.
 “Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel,” National Park Service, last updated June 7, 2018, accessed March 4, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/alexandre-gustave-eiffel.htm.
 “The Statue of Liberty,” The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, accessed February 26, 2023, https://www.statueofliberty.org/statue-of-liberty/overview-history/.
 “Liberty Island Chronology,” National Park Service, last updated February 14, 2023, accessed March 10, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/liberty-island-a-chronology.htm.
 “Restoring the Statue,” National Park Service, last updated February 26, 2015, accessed March 10, 2023. https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/places_restoring.htm.
 Foundation Document – Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island (National Park Service, July 2018), 3.