The Magazine

The Lady Is a Lamp

What you don’t know about the Statue of Liberty.

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By EMILY SCHULTHEIS
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‘Slowly the ship glides into the harbor,” wrote one turn-of-the-century immigrant of arriving in New York, “and when it passes under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, the silence is broken, and a thousand hands are outstretched in a greeting to this new divinity to whose keeping they now entrust themselves. ‘Oh Papa,’ cried one young girl, ‘the goddess has waded into the water to meet us!’ ”

Ronald Reagan campaigns for president, 1980.

Ronald Reagan campaigns for president, 1980.


This popular image of the Statue of Liberty as the “Mother of Exiles” who (in the words of Emma Lazarus) beckons, Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, was not what the Frenchmen behind the project originally intended. In fact, the meaning of Lady Liberty has been remarkably flexible since she made her first appearance in the mid-1870s. The evolution of her significance is one of the many stories told here by Edward Berenson.

Berenson, who teaches French history at New York University, traces the development of Frédéric Auguste
Bartholdi’s universally recognized “Liberty Enlightening the World” from the financing of the statue and her base to the ideals she has represented to her image in the popular mind. 

The idea first emerged in 1865 at a gathering of French intellectuals mourning the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, whom they adored for his opposition to slavery. Napoleon III had aided the Confederacy during the war, however, and these Frenchmen wanted to give the reunited American states a symbolic gift to solidify their relationship and celebrate the common ground—a love of liberty—shared by the two countries.

They concluded that only a colossus would do to convey an idea as vast and important as liberty. To support the statue from the inside, they recruited Gustave Eiffel (later of Tower fame) to build a skeleton—a flexible, 132-ton tower on which Lady Liberty’s wafer-thin exterior hangs. The exterior itself, though only 3/32 of an inch thick, weighs 88 tons. 

Contrary to popular belief, the statue was not a gift from the French government to the American government. In fact and in spirit, she was an offering from the French people to the American citizenry, and the funds for the statue and her base were raised almost entirely from private individuals on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Indeed, to raise funds, Bartholdi had to be creative, and Berenson found that souvenirs of the Statue of Liberty—so ubiquitous in tourist shops around New York today—actually date from well before the statue was completed. Postcards, lithographs, and miniature figures of all sizes were sold to raise money to finish the project. 

Interestingly, Bartholdi and his team discovered that tourists would pay to explore the inside of the statue before she was finished. So they sold tickets to climb inside the arm and torch when they were displayed at the 1876 centennial exhibition in Philadelphia, and did the same when Lady Liberty’s head was displayed at the Paris International Exposition in 1878 on the Champ de Mars—where Eiffel’s famous tower would go up 11 years later. 

Rudyard Kipling wrote about his visit to Liberty’s head in his Souvenirs of France:

One ascended by a staircase to the dome of the skull and looked out through vacant eyeballs at a bright colored world beneath. I climbed up there often, and an elderly Frenchman said to me, “Now you young Englisher, you can say you have looked through the eyes of Liberty Herself.” 

For their part, the American recipients took on the job of raising funds for the statue, as well as designing and building the base—a massive undertaking in itself, given the magnitude of Lady Liberty. Though repeatedly petitioned for funds, the robber barons and great families of New York City were not eager to contribute. However, Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World was a champion of the project and organized a brilliant campaign to raise funds through small donations from readers: Dimes, quarters, and dollars poured in from ordinary Americans, giving them all a stake in the statue. Ultimately, more than 121,000 people donated $102,000—one-third of the amount needed for the pedestal. 

The statue’s first home was Paris, where she was assembled in 1883 amidst Baron Haussmann’s grand new boulevards. In 1884, Victor Hugo visited the statue in Paris on what was to be the last outing of his life, writing: “I have been to see Bartholdi’s colossal .  .  . statue for America. .  .  . It is superb. When I saw the statue I said: ‘The sea, that great tempestuous force, bears witness to the union of two great peaceful lands.’ ”