Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Friday, July 02, 2010

Liberty Enlightening the World

The Statue of Liberty’s official title is “Liberty Enlightening the World.” The statue was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence (which Elena Kagan seems not to recognize as a legal document), as noted in the inscription on the tablet she holds.

Frenchman Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye, a jurist and law professor, was a critic of Napoleon III and his Second Empire. In 1865, Laboulaye and his “liberal” friends – that is, liberal in the classical tradition of believing in liberty - mourned the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Laboulaye suggested that a statue should be erected, the work of both France and the United States, to memorialize the great president. The French people sent a gift to his widow, a gold medal inscribed with the words: “Lincoln, man of honor, abolished slavery, restored the Union, and saved the Republic, without veiling the statue of Liberty.” [p. 21-22, Liberty: The Statue and the American Dream, Leslie Allen, 1985]

One of the guests at Laboulaye’s party that evening was sculptor Auguste Bartholdi. He had envisioned a grand, towering, torch-bearing female figure which would serve as a lighthouse, one to rival the Colossus of Rhodes. Origianlly, the statue was intended for the Suez Canal in Egypt. However, this project was never realized.

He would later claim that his statue for New York Harbor, Liberty Enlightening the World, had nothing to do with this earlier project. Bartholdi served as an officer in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 (Northern German, Poland, Latvia, Bavaria). The war ended Napoleon’s rule. Germany, the victor, was able to claim Alsace, a small section of eastern France.

America’s support of Prussia in its resistance to Napoleon gained admirers among the French liberals and Bartholdi made it his business to visit America – “an adorable woman chewing tobacco,” he described the country in a letter to his mother. Upon entering New York Harbor, he immediately spotted the venue for his project – Bedloe’s Island.

He’d found the site, but finding the money for the project, which began in 1875, would not be so easy. Money flowed in from French aristocrats for the project at parties throughout Paris. Contributions came in from 181 French towns and 100,000 subscribers.

Congress authorized acceptance of the statue, but it voted for funds only for the purchase of the island and the statue’s maintenance. She still had no pedestal. In spite of that, Bartholdi shipped the statue in pieces to New York in 1885, having presented the monument to the American ambassador to Paris the year before.

The statue languished until newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer established a pedestal fund, advertising it in his newspaper, the New York World. The pedestal was short $100,000 (a Congressional bill for the $100,000 died in committee) and Americans seemed satisfied to leave the job to millionaires. But Pulitzer, through his editorials, convinced Americans that the statue was for all of them. It was a statue from the French people to the American people, he wrote, not from French millionaires to American millionaires. School children and common workers sent in their donations.

In 1883, poet Emma Lazarus had composed a poem, “The New Colossus”, for an exhibition to raise funds for the pedestal. Her parents were refugees from the anti-Semitic riots in Russia. However, immigration was a controversial topic at the time of the statue’s unveiling and her poem was not mentioned during the ceremonies.  Only in 1903, thanks to an admiring philanthropist, was a plaque bearing the poem hung inside the pedestal. The poem only began to be recognized in the late 1930s as part of the statue’s legacy.

Thousands of immigrants – the “wretched refuse of the teeming shores” of Europe, a line which Obama omitted, did welcome the sight of the statue and the Liberty she represented. In those days, freedom was the opportunity to work for oneself and family, keep what one earned, and prosper. Vagrancy was a notion uncongenial to the work ethic of the immigrants arriving in the late 19th century.

New arrivals were not simply allowed to disembark at Clinton Castle (the disembarkment point on lower Manhattan before Ellis Island was developed). Immigrants had to prove they could speak English, had a sponsor, a place to live, gainful employment, and no diseases. Those failing these requirements were placed back on their ships and returned to their original destination.

The statue was made of 179,220 pounds of copper, not bronze or gold, and was originally golden in color before weather and age tinted her the familiar sea green she is now (copper carbonate or verdigris). The material made her less forbidding (she was modeled after both Bartholdi’s mother and his sweetheart) and more accessible in the eyes of working class immigrants beholding her for the first time.

Generations of immigrants have flocked to the sides of arriving boats to catch a glimpse of her and the hope of freedom she offers. Despite objections to Lazarus’ poem, the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom from oppression and the poverty that it engenders.

She has not withstood the test of time and politics to invite swindlers and freeloaders to pick the pockets of previous generations whose hard work and love of freedom made this country great. 

Obama would do well to remember that she is made of copper, not bronze or gold, though consumption of copper has made it a rare and highly-valued metal with only a 25-60 year reserve left (though it can be recycled), a metal that serves as the underpinnings of our country’s infrastructure (and the American penny, the very pennies that helped build her foundation), a metal that thieves scruple not to steal at every opportunity in the form of wiring and piping.

For Obama to hold open the “golden” door to immigrants who come to America only to plunder her resources and take advantage of her at-present liberal, welfare-state politics, and to use the Statue of Liberty as his prop for his immigration program, is the same as stripping the Statue down merely for the value her copper skin could bring on the market.

At the unveiling ceremony in October 1886, President Grover Cleveland said, “We will not forget that Liberty has made here her home nor shall her chosen altar be neglected. Willing votaries [devotees] will constantly keep alive its fires and these shall gleam upon the shores of our sister republic in the East [France]. Reflected thence and joined with anwering rays, a stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until Liberty enlightens the world.”

[The author apologizes for the earlier typos and mistakes - that's what happens when you burn the midnight oil!]

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