‘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!’ ”
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.’ ”
The people of Paris fell so in love with the statue that Bartholdi ultimately produced a scaled-down replica that now stands on a small island in the Seine. The original was disassembled, placed into 212 crates, and sent to Bedloe’s Island, where the crates sat unopened for nearly a year while the pedestal was completed. Once the statue was reassembled, a massive inaugural parade was arranged in 1886.
As part of an Art Loan Exhibition to raise money for the pedestal in 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus,” which, 20 years later, would be engraved on a bronze plaque hung at the base of the statue. However, the poem did not become so well known until the 1930s, when Liberty’s symbolism as a welcoming “mother” to immigrants was established.
It is Lady Liberty’s “symbolic malleability” that Berenson takes up in the second half of his book, and this makes his contribution to her history different. Before she became a symbol of welcome to newcomers, Americans saw her as a symbol of opposition to immigration. The massive influx of immigrants around the turn of the 20th century caused tension with native-born Americans. In the decades before the Civil War, the United States saw an average of 125,000 immigrants a year; by 1880, half a million people every year were coming to our shores. Between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and 1900, 13.3 million immigrants arrived in the United States, and another 13 million or so arrived in the years leading up to World War I.
This flood of newcomers began around the same time as the economic crises of the 1870s and ’80s, as manufacturing jobs were rapidly expanding and unions were striking. The new working class became overwhelmingly immigrant, causing complicated class and cultural conflicts with their native-born managers.
It was during this time of economic dislocation and tumult that the Statue of Liberty became associated with immigrants, since most European vessels arrived in New York Harbor. Between 1890 and 1924, the reception facility on Ellis Island (next door to Lady Liberty) processed more than 12 million immigrants—the current populations of New York City and Los Angeles combined.
Having arrived in New York Harbor, immigrants who had achieved success “began to see the Statue of Liberty as an emblem of their good fortune,” writes Berenson. But it was not until the First World War, when Liberty’s image was used to recruit newcomers to the American cause, that she began to take on a more positive meaning. And not until the 1930s, when the largest waves of immigrants had ceased, “did the American public at large come to see the Statue of Liberty as the symbol of immigration and to regard that symbolism in a largely positive light.”
It was in this environment that Lazarus’s poem took hold as the overarching characterization of the “Mother of Exiles.” Berenson notes that, in the context of Jewish immigrants fleeing Hitler on the eve of World War II, sympathy for the plight of immigrants in general became more widespread, and the experience of World War II made America a welcoming “melting pot” of cultures.
In fact, by 1956, the immigrant experience had become so universal that Congress approved a plan for an immigration museum at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and renamed her island perch Liberty Island. But assembling an immigration museum on the eve of the Age of Aquarius turned out to be too contentious a proposition, and there was a public outcry against putting such a controversial site at the foot of a beloved icon. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that Ellis Island would host the immigration museum, separating Bartholdi’s colossus from the culture debates, and allowing her to take up the abstract mantle of liberty once more.
Berenson includes an entertaining chapter on the ways in which the Statue of Liberty has been used in advertisements, film, television, and popular culture. Her likeness has been used to sell everything from cigarettes to World War I Liberty Loans, the latter asking contributors to “Remember Your First Thrill of American Liberty.” Her versatility stems not only from her universal popularity, writes Berenson, but also her “status as a ‘hollow icon,’ open to almost any meaning, [allowing] her to stand just as easily for peace as for war.” She has been a popular cultural symbol for the better part of a century: Irving Berlin wrote an entire Broadway musical about her in 1949, and she has made appearances in a wide variety of Hollywood films, even coming alive to save New York in Ghostbusters II.
Berenson details the complicated 1986 restoration (including new rivets precovered with Liberty’s signature green patina to avoid a polka-dot look), completed in time for her centennial, for which New York hosted a four-day party. On the occasion, Paul Goldberger described her in the New York Times as a “gesture of welcoming. . . . This great figure standing at the edge pulls New York together [and gives] the city an anchor. . . . The city that is too large and too busy to stop for anyone seems, through this statue, to stop for everyone.”
Emily Schultheis is an assistant editor at National Affairs.