The Statue of Liberty is one of the most admired and cherished cultural icons in the U.S. Here are some quick facts.  

  • During the early 1900s, many citizens (especially in the northeast) affectionately called Ellis Island their first home in the U.S. when they arrived as immigrants.  
  • More than 12 million European immigrants were processed through the federal processing station from the time it was opened in 1892 through 1954. First originating mainly in Northern Europe, immigrants ultimately arrived from Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe. 
  • Here’s a noteworthy detail. A National American Indian Memorial was to be built in 1911 on Staten Island. However, vocal white opponents fought the idea. They complained that since it would be seen first by immigrants as they came into New York Harbor, it would overshadow the Statue of Liberty. Due to that covert form of bigotry, the inspiring project honoring the First Americans never materialized.
  • The idea of the popular ticker tape parade started at the statue’s dedication.  
  • Millions of U.S. citizens enjoy their educational learning trips to the Statue of Liberty National Monument, including my family and me.   

Still, most people in the U.S. may not know how a Frenchman’s dream of the Statue of Liberty became a reality.

Édouard René de Laboulae

Édouard René de Laboulae, French liberal and anti-slavery advocate, was the visionary who first thought of the monument. The sculptor was Frédérik Auguste Bartholdi, who not only gave the statue her real name, Liberty Enlightening the World, but used his mother as the model for the statue. Gustave Eiffel, whose company built the Eiffel Tower in Paris, constructed the wrought iron framework. 

As well, most people know that the statue was a gift from France to the U.S. Yet, while that is true, there’s more to the story.  

Actually, Mr. Laboulae had a dual purpose in mind. First, that it would establish the U.S. as the foremost country for welcoming immigrants. Second, he anticipated that the statue would symbolize liberty around the world(La liberté éclairant le mond).  

Remarkably, the Statue of Liberty was not the first of its kind. That’s because since 1863, the Statue of Freedom by Thomas Crawford (1814-1857) has adorned the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. However, following are some little-known details. 

Mr. Crawford’s first prototype included a pileus on the female figure’s head. A pileus is a skull cap that ancient Rome awarded emancipated slaves as a symbol of their freedom. Unfortunately, U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (future president of the Confederacy) protested. As a result, the pileus was replaced with a military helmet. Why did Mr. Davis object? Short and simple, he didn’t want the Statue of Freedom to symbolize an end of slavery in the U.S.

As for the Statue of Liberty, it’s generally known that a bronze plaque on the pedestal contains poet Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus” (“Give me your tired, your poor”). However, few may know the origin of her heartfelt composition.

The basis for her inspiration? She saw a particular group of Jewish refugees arriving in New York and poignantly described what she saw. Of well-to-do means, she was distressed to see the despair in the faces of Jewish people who were escaping violent ethnic-cleansing drives in Europe. The experience so influenced her that she became a volunteer.    

Who paid for the Statue of Liberty? In a way, it may be considered a reciprocal gift. That is, France paid for the statue and the U.S. paid for the pedestal it stands on. Support on both sides of the Atlantic was slow. Primarily objecting to Mr. Laboulae’s liberal views, conservative factions in France didn’t favor the fundraising.  

Faced with the dismal response, French organizers publicized the idea throughout the country. It didn’t take long before donations started pouring in, not from the affluent, but from common citizens and school children. Their small-amount contributions helped to make it happen. Additionally, close to 200 French cities and towns donated money to the worthy cause.    

Likewise, in the U.S., initial support was indifferent. For instance, Grover Cleveland (then Governor of New York) vetoed a bill to donate $50,000 to the construction campaign. Wealthy citizens were skeptical and showed little interest, causing the pedestal’s construction to stop.  

That’s when Joseph Pulitzer stepped in to help. Borrowing an idea from France, he publicized the Statue of Liberty in his newspaper by featuring heartwarming stories. Soon, the project gained momentum and funding increased at a steady pace.

The statue was built in stages in France and arrived in New York, June 17, 1885. The pedestal’s foundation was completed in April 1886. Sadly, Monsieur de Laboulae died in 1883 and didn’t witness the statue’s dedication.     

Grover Cleveland (by then U.S. President) presided over the ceremony, October 28, 1886. The most memorable line in his speech: “… The statue’s stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until Liberty enlightens the world.”  

Incidentally, it was clear that President Cleveland’s words didn’t apply to women or minority groups. Nor, does it appear that U.S. society viewed liberty as Mr. Laboulae envisioned it. For example, although liberty is depicted as a woman, women weren’t allowed to attend the statue’s dedication (with only one exception, Mr. Bartholdi’s wife). 

Women’s rights groups quickly vented their displeasure. Energized by that slight, they gained women’s right to vote in 1920 (19thAmendment, U.S. Constitution.)   

In summary, has Mr. Laboulae’s dream been fulfilled? In my view, the answer is No. As such, I offer the following:  

  • Sadly, we are witnessing a most tragic turn in our country that is truly disturbing. That is, the Statue of Liberty’s guiding light has dimmed to the point where the resulting darkness represents injustice and intolerance in the U.S., and not Mr. Laboulae’s vision of Liberty enlightening the world (La liberté éclairant le mond).
  • To be sure, the Statue of Liberty still projects optimism in those seeking sanctuary. Yet, some descendants of those 12 million immigrants mentioned earlier display a noticeable fear-of-others. In short, they degrade immigrants seeking the same hope as their ancestors. Said another way, they don’t want Lady Liberty’s openhearted beacon to welcome present-day immigrant families.
  • There is hope. As the U.S. electorate went to the polls last month in the middle of a life-threatening virus crisis, a record-setting number cast their votes. The majority (over 80 million) elected a candidate who has made it one of his highest priorities to relight the torch on the Statue of Liberty, signaling A New Bright Beginning.

In closing, Jefferson Davis’ sinister views in 1863 regarding the Statue of Freedom helped set the stage that liberty and freedom didn’t apply to African-descent U.S. citizens. In fact, in reference to the Statue of Liberty, The Cleveland Gazette, an African American newspaper, wrote the editorial below addressing the hypocrisy:

“Liberty enlightening the world,” indeed! The expression makes us sick. This government is a howling farce. It cannot or rather does not protect its citizens within its own borders. Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the “liberty” of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed. The idea of the “liberty” of this country ‘enlightening the world’ … is ridiculous in the extreme.” 

Judging from official U.S. policies that intensify intolerance toward blacks, other people of color, andimmigrants, the Cleveland Gazette’s editorial sadly still rings true today.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by historian and author José Antonio López. His columns appear each month in the Rio Grande Guardian. To reach the author email: [email protected]

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows the Statue of Liberty. (Photo credit: Word Press).

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