My interest in Laboulaye
April 25, 2011
In writing Enlightening the World, I felt that it was important to learn as much as possible about the people who shaped the statue. And as I learned about Édouard Laboulaye, I came to really like him. He was a legal scholar who sincerely longed for justice and the protection of human rights and human dignity. Susan B. Anthony referred to him as a friend of the women’s movement, he was president of the French Anti-Slavery Society, he concerned himself with the treatment of military prisoners, and he urged his fellow citizens (living under the rule of Napoleon III) to yearn for liberty. His novel Paris in America was impressive, but so too were his short stories for children, lovely tales with lessons such as “not only assist, but respect, the poor.”
Laboulaye’s enduring admiration of America, her founding fathers, and the system of government they initiated was widely known in France. When he proposed that the people of France and the U.S. jointly build a monument to liberty and to American independence, he reminded the French of the role they had played in America’s achievement of independence and of the special friendship between the two peoples that was established during the American Revolutionary War.
However the enormity of the project Laboulaye undertook and the remarkable commitment he made to it have led people to question his motives. Practically denying the goodwill of the French people, some writers have suggested that the statue was essentially a self-serving political device. Because Laboulaye taught that the American form of government offered an example to the French (and other people around the world seeking change from authoritarian rule), the statue has been called a ploy, planned by the liberals in France to bolster their program.
This seems to me a highly skeptical approach. Limited access to information about Laboulaye and the other main figures responsible for the statue may be partly to blame. For instance, Auguste Bartholdi’s journal entries and letters home during his visit to the U.S. in 1871 offer clues to his design and to his own commitment to the statue. But they were referred to only through secondary sources in studies in the 1970s and 1980s. The journal and letters were probably difficult to consult prior to their arrival at the New York Public Library in the mid-1980s, which might explain their omission. In addition, new detailed studies of Laboulaye, Bartholdi, Richard Morris Hunt, and Gustave Eiffel have also been completed in the last twenty years.
My research convinced me that, although Laboulaye may have been slightly misguided, having never visited the U.S. himself, his faith in the strong bonds of a unique kinship between the American and French people was sincere. He recalled the enthusiastic reception Lafayette received during his visit to the U.S. in 1824-1825 and believed that the sense of friendship displayed by Americans he met in Paris was shared by many Americans. He had numerous contacts in the U.S. and he anticipated a favorable response to the idea of a monument to liberty, accomplished through the combined efforts of the French and American people.