The statue’s broken chain

April 25, 2011

Learning about Laboulaye and Bartholdi also helped me make sense of the individual features of the statue. Bartholdi included traditional symbols of liberty in his design, without explanation. Most people agree that, while using traditional symbols, he intended to evoke America’s particular experiences and achievements. In most cases, however, there’s room for interpretation; the trampled chain is one such case, its full meaning disputed ever since the statue’s unveiling. The chain may, as has often been asserted, refer solely to the Revolutionary period in American history, symbolizing America’s liberty from the oppression of British authority, which is also represented by the date of independence written on the tablet. But I came to a different conclusion.

Bartholdi designed the statue in the decade following the American Civil War. People in France had followed the war’s progress and many people, among them Laboulaye, had supported Abraham Lincoln and strongly advocated the abolition of slavery. Six years after the war’s end, Bartholdi visited the U.S. He saw how the war’s memory and effects were clearly present in people’s lives, and he met with abolitionists such as Charles Sumner. For these reasons and more, I am convinced that the trampled chain symbolizes not only America’s independence from Britain, but also, and even primarily, the abolition of slavery in the U.S.

Chauncey Depew, the invited orator at the statue’s unveiling, associated slavery with the broken chain at Liberty’s feet during the unveiling ceremony in 1886. “The development of Liberty was impossible,” he declared, “while she was shackled to the slave.” I believe that the statue’s main sponsors and creators all shared this sentiment.

And yet the statue was readily stripped of this important meaning. For so many years.

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