Jul 182013

What IS Right With America? Liberty Enlightening the World

Have you ever received a gift? A wonderful gift, but a gift that nonetheless that carried a few strings with it?

What may have begun as an idea developed during an after-dinner conversation was transformed into a statue that is more than 150 feet in height with a torch that has welcomed immigrants to our nation for more than 150 years. We know the statue, of course, as the Statue of Liberty.

The phrase “Liberty Enlightening the World” is actually the name for the monument we know as the Statue of Liberty. The statue was created by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. I had always heard that the Statue of Liberty was given to the United States as a gift from France to mark our centennial in 1876. However, the course of events which raised Lady Liberty’s torch more than 300 feet above the New York Harbor are a bit more complicated.

Edouard Rene de Laboulaye was a law professor in France who wrote poetry and published several works about the United States. He was also an abolitionist who was delighted with the Union Victory of our Civil War. He purportedly floated the idea of a monument created for the United Sates to his friend Augusts Bartholdi. Laboulaye’s vision was of a statue which honored our ideals of freedom and unalienable rights. He hoped that such a project would also promote the democratic movement in France.
There were several high hurdles which had to be overcome in order for Laboulaye’s idea to become a reality. The one I will discuss today is funding. Eventually, Laboulaye proposed that the French would fund the statue itself, while the Americans would pay for the pedestal that would eventually rest on Bedloe’s Island. The Statue of Liberty was not officially given to the people of the United States by the people of France. There was no influx of governmental funding to see the project through to its completion. The funds were primarily raised through public donation. Laboulaye, and other proponets in France, arranged for special fundraising events such as a performance of a new cantata by Charles Gounod at the Paris Opera in April 1876. He was also able to arrange for most of the 200,000 pounds of copper to be donated by French copper merchants and industrialists.

The United States was still struggling economically after the Civil War, and a fundraising project of that nature was an uphill battle. Additionally, there was a fair amount of grumbling that Americans had to foot the bill for the pedestal required to hold a “gift.” Unlike what might occur today, governmental officials would not fund this type of project. Grover Cleveland, then the New York Governor, vetoed $50,000.00 in funding for the statue’s pedestal. Democrats in the Congress would not agree to a $100,000.00 appropriation for completion of the project in 1885. Yet, American ingenuity would see the project through to its completion.

In 1881, a group known as “The American Committee of the Statue of Liberty” had formed to raise the funds necessary to create a pedestal for the Statue, as well as to pay for its placement in the harbor. Members of the committee included: Senator William Evarts, Frederic Bartholdi, Richard Butler, Henry Spaulding, Levi Parsons Morton, and Joseph Pulitzer. One of the most notable fundraising events was an auction which produced Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus.” More about that in a future post. Despite the committee’s efforts, donations were slow to trickle into the fund. At the time that the Congress refused to appropriate funds to complete the project, the committee had only $3,000.00 in its coffers. It seemed that New York might lose the statue to either the cities of Philadelphia or Boston which were willing to fund the project. However, Joseph Pulitzer was not willing to give up. He announced that his newspaper, “The World” would publish the name of everyone who contributed to the project – no matter how big or small the amount of the donation. Stories began to surface of children who donated a dollar, sixty cents, or as little as a nickel to help build Lady Liberty’s new home. A donation of $1.35 from a kindergarten class in Iowa arrived by mail. Donation from such diverse sources as taverns and a home for recovering alcoholics donated began to steadily flow into “The World.” By August, 1885, an announcement in “The World” boasted that 120,000 donors had contributed more than $102,000.00! The most amazing aspect of this story was that more than three quarters of the donations were made in amounts smaller than one dollar.

More about this fascinating American symbol in my next post. The attached image is a 1909 photograph of Wilbur Wright flying by the Statue of Liberty. Wright attached a canoe to the bottom of the plan in the off chance that a water landing would be necessary!

Please take a moment to consider what was accomplished when the citizens of New York, and indeed citizens across the United States, began to pull together. It was not a small group of affluent donors who funded the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. It was a large group of citizens who chose to give a bit of themselves that facilitated the project’s completion. It is when we band together than we can truly see What IS Right With America!


Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.


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