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Hidden History: Visiting the Statue of Liberty

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

Statue of Liberty with a blue sky and the New York City cityscape in the background.

Go beneath the surface of one of New York’s most iconic landmarks.

Presiding over New York Harbor is the Roman goddess Libertas, reincarnated in greened copper with a wrought-iron skeleton that supports 450,000 pounds.

The Statue of Liberty is so deeply rooted in New York memory that it’s hard to believe its construction almost didn’t happen. The year is 1883, and French antislavery activist Édouard de Laboulaye’s vision for a monumental gift from France to the United States is about to break the bank -- of both countries. As a gesture of international collaboration, the U.S. had committed to building the pedestal, while France was set to construct and assemble the Robed Lady herself.

De Laboulaye conceived of the statue as much more than a monument. For him, it was an ideological catalyst for France to embrace the democratic ideals exemplified by the U.S. after the Civil War and Emancipation. Above all, de Laboulaye believed in the common law of free people. In other words, “Nobody's free until everybody's free,” as civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer would shout a century later. De Laboulaye was so moved by America’s democratic transformation that he felt France could learn from this struggle and do the same. He discussed the idea for a statue with his colleagues at the French Anti-Slavery Society until he had gathered enough support in both France and the United States to launch the Franco-American Union, which undertook the project. Now all they needed was some funding to make it happen.

So both countries crowdfunded. The French put on elaborate shows and lotteries to win citizens over to the cause. In the U.S., art exhibitions, theatrical performances, and even prizefights strengthened public support for the statue. Joseph Pulitzer leveraged his widely-read newspaper, The World, publishing the names of donors beside the daily headlines.

And Emma Lazarus penned her legendary sonnet “The New Colossus” for a massive public auction. Lazarus was a Jewish activist who traced her ancestry back to the Revolutionary War. Her poem implores, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” These verses are immortalized on a plaque that’s mounted on the pedestal’s lower level. Lazarus’s call to action set a tone for the American conscience in the 19th century. By virtue of her location on the water, Lady Liberty could welcome millions of immigrants into New York. By the time the statue was completed in 1886, the Statue of Liberty would be the first thing they saw of their new life, a kind of promise reflecting off her golden torch.

But first, France and the United States had to figure out how to pull off this monumental task. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, an ambitious sculptor in France, was up to the challenge. He teamed up with Alexandre Gustave Eiffel -- yes, the same visionary who brought us the Eiffel Tower. Bartholdi and Eiffel constructed the statue to stand 305 feet tall if you include everything from torch to foundation. Lady Liberty’s torch is 24-carat gold, her seven-pointed crown a symbol of the seven continents and seas. The broken shackles that lie by her feet thwart the twin threats of oppression and tyranny.

These metaphors are heavy-handed for a good reason. Monuments are only as powerful as we make them. The Statue’s original name was “Liberty Enlightening the World.” And that kind of says it all. Lady Liberty is meant to be a messenger of sorts. Her transcendent pose and unwavering gaze continue to send out a message beyond the waters of New York Harbor.

If you’re interested in incorporating some French history into your travel plans, check out our Parisian New York itinerary.


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