Lady Liberty

This Day in History

On this day in 1885, the beautiful Statue of Liberty arrived on the banks of New York Harbor as a gift from the people of France. 

The beautiful copper and iron statue was far from being completed, however. 350 individual pieces had to be painstakingly assembled over the course of a year before she would resemble the architectural masterpiece we recognize today. Even more tedious than putting together Lady Liberty, was the history of her creation. 

The idea for the generous gift to America was conceived in early 1870 by French politician Edouard Rene de Laboulaye. As an ardent advocate for abolition, Laboulaye was inspired to create a monument of freedom for the American people following the Civil War. In his own country, at the time, an oppressive monarchy ruled the land. Hoping to inspire the people toward a more democratic society, his idea to “congratulate” America on her upcoming centennial birthday and dedication to freedom would also hopefully spur on the French to take up arms for freedom and democracy. 

He mentioned the idea to his sculptor friend Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, who supported the vision. The artist unfortunately was occupied with other ongoing projects at the time. Nearly a year later, after his former projects were completed, Bartholdi made the journey across the Atlantic to meet with the US government to propose the idea for a monument. Arriving in New York Harbor for the first time, the artist quickly scooped out a lone island sitting between New York and New Jersey because all vessels arriving to New York had to sail past it. The land belonged to the United States government. President Ulysses S. Grant gave his approval but Bartholdi would need to garner public approval and funds first. 

Bartholdi wanted to embody the American ideals of freedom and justice. Using the allegorical character Columbia as an inspiration, his designs represented a neoclassical female figure in pursuit of freedom and liberty. In 1875, Bartholdi finally recognized that the time was ripe to ask the French citizens for support in erecting a statue to the Americans. The French were eager to support their ally, giving more than $250,000 ($5.5 million in today’s money) for the statue to be completed. 

It was intended to be finished by 1876, the centennial birthday of the United States. Complications, funds, and building issues, however, prohibited completion on the anticipated date. Finally, a decade after the idea was proposed, Lady Liberty was shipped off in pieces to her Trans-Atlantic home in 1884. 

 

After all of the careful planning and fundraising, ironically, she was almost not erected due to insufficient funds to provide for a base for her grace to stand upon.

Thanks to the persuasive strength of newspaper mogol, Joseph Pulitzer, urging the American public to donate towards the pedestal, did she finally stand.  On August 11, 1885, Joseph Pulitzer published the “call to action” in his newspaper, The New York World: “We must raise the money!…The $250,000 that the making of the Statue cost was paid in by the masses of the French people- by the working men, the tradesmen, the shop girls, the artisans- by all, irrespective of class or condition. Let us respond in like manner. Let us not wait for the millionaires to give us 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.”

As an incentive for donations, Pulitzer promised to publish the names of each donor, no matter how small the donation. His compelling words raised over $100,000 in six months. Instead of the wealthiest Americans contributing large sums, the bulk of the donations came from many people donating an average of $1.00. The “strength in numbers” helped financially support the daunting task, and as promised, every donor had his or her name published in the newspaper. 

At last on October 28, 1886,  President Grover Cleveland officially dedicated the monument saying, “we will not forget that Liberty has here made her home; nor shall her chosen altar be neglected.” Indeed, Lady Liberty soon became a symbol of hope and justice in the mending Reconstruction era. Yet she also soon became a symbol to another group of people: immigrants. 

On January 1, 1892, the adjacent Ellis Island first opened its doors as America’s primary immigration center. The first few immigrants were stunned as the tallest structure in New York, at the time, welcomed them with open arms into the new country of promise, freedom, and liberty. 

Poet Emma Lazarus’s famous poem written on the pedestal warmly offered hope to new soon-to-be citizens: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Today Lady Liberty stands as an enduring monument to freedom, democracy, and liberty. The 240 years of America’s marvelous history are embodied in her enduring structure. Her soft gaze welcomes immigrants into the land of hope. Her torch represents justice, but also the strength of the American people willing to unite in bringing about liberty – no matter how high the cost. 

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