“Such a work as this gift of one people to another has never yet been thought of, much less achieved,” the New York Independent enthused at the time of the statue’s unveiling. “The whole history, from the arrival of Lafayette down to the first proposal to build the monument, and throughout its actual development, has risen above all grades and degrees of ordinary interest, and comes into the regions of romance.”
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the depth of feeling that inspired the French people to pursue such a work. The unique sense of friendship between the people of France and the United States that was established during the American War for Independence set the stage for this effort, and the example set by the United States during its first century — proving that ideas of liberty and constitutional government could be shaped into a practical system — instilled a sense of admiration and optimism.
When I decided to work on a book about the statue, I was familiar with the basic outline of her story; the French sculptor, the oft-repeated sonnet, the New York World’s fundraising drive. But I suspected that there was much more to know about “the whole history,” from Lafayette’s arrival in America to the completion of the statue in New York Harbor. I wanted to explore the lives and motivations of the people responsible for the statue’s creation and to examine the emblems of liberty she displays: the flame of enlightenment, the 7-rayed crown, the tablet of the law, and the broken chain trampled under foot.
There were also questions, frequently raised in recent years, regarding the meaning of liberty represented by the statue. Is it that of a people’s freedom for self-government based on principles of liberty? Does the statue refer solely to the achievements of the American Revolution? Or could it also include individuals’ rights to liberty, in particular freedom from the oppression of slavery, and refer as well to the Civil War? My research convinced me that the Statue of Liberty was intended to encompass both these crucial meanings.
Researching the statue and piecing together the gems of her story to form the text that became Enlightening the World was a fascinating and enlightening endeavor. The details of her history are at once meaningful and remarkable; and I came to appreciate that it was only through an extraordinary meeting of sources, talents, personal devotion, and circumstances that the Statue of Liberty, today a most cherished national monument, came into being in the nineteenth century.
Colmar’s tribute to Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi
Many of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s sculptures, models, paintings, and drawings, along with his personal photos and papers, are maintained by the Bartholdi Museum in Colmar. Bartholdi grew up in the building that houses the collection and remained attached to his family home even after he moved to Paris. Colmar clearly shares this sense of attachment and takes pride in her celebrated sculptor. In 2004 Colmar honored Bartholdi on the centennial of his death with the construction of a 12-meter-high replica of the Statue of Liberty at the northern edge of the city.
I had stayed in Colmar on a previous trip so when I returned as part of my research for the book I decided to see more of the surrounding area and stay in a bed and breakfast outside the city. Each morning, on my way into Colmar I was greeted by the recently erected Statue of Liberty.
The Voulminot Monument at the Colmar municipal cemetery
I also visited one of Bartholdi’s war memorials during my visit to Colmar. Commemorating the spirit of the French National Guardsmen who sought to defend their homeland against the invading Prussian army in September 1870, this gravestone for two Guardsmen is simple yet dramatic. Two full-length stone slabs covering the gravesite separate slightly as a figure struggles to emerge. An arm from below reaches out toward a sword lying nearby, but the grasping hand cannot find the weapon.
In his design one can sense that Bartholdi personally experienced the war – in fact, he was a captain in the national guard at Colmar – and felt the loss of Colmar’s self-determination at the end of the war, when Colmar, along with the entire region, was lost to Germany.
Bartholdi’s Exploratory Visit to America in 1871
It was, in fact, at the end of the war that Bartholdi took up the idea of creating a liberty statue for America with new interest. He had discussed the idea with a small group of people in France since the end of the American Civil War, six years before. Now the proposed monument to liberty had deeper meaning for him and, although he could not be certain that the project would ever go ahead, he set out for the United States on an “exploratory” visit. He wanted to learn more about America – her people, her art, her natural landscape – and see whether the idea of a liberty statue appealed to Americans.
Bartholdi stayed for over four months. His experience of the United States that summer greatly affected him. For one, he developed a strong personal commitment to the project that would sustain his involvement for the next fifteen years, until the statue’s unveiling in New York Harbor in 1886. He also made progress on his design, developing several design elements along with the “colossal” scale of the statue. The discovery of an island site for the statue further inspired Bartholdi. “The site is superb!” he wrote in his journal about Bedloe’s Island, known today as Liberty Island.
To my surprise, I was able to read Bartholdi’s journal entries as well as letters he wrote home during his visit at the New York Public Library. The library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division has a collection of Bartholdi papers that consists of his 1871 journal and numerous letters, along with an English translation of all the texts by Rodman Gilder (Gilder wrote a book about the statue that was published by the New York Trust Company in 1943).
From these writings it is clear that Bartholdi was enthusiastic but not naive about the task that lay ahead. Shortly after arriving in the United States he wrote to his mother, with a touch of disappointment, that completing a liberty statue “is sure to be a long and laborious process.” Yet having spent the summer months meeting Americans, visiting the big cities of the East and historical Revolution-era sites, hearing about the Civil War and the Union’s struggles to establish its new footing, and experiencing the vastness of the country filled him with a sense of optimism, one that he would convey in his design for a statue. He also came to believe in the great “moral value” of the monument he was shaping in his mind.
Pedestal Architect Richard Morris Hunt
During his stay in the United States in 1871 Bartholdi met and became friends with an artist, John La Farge, who introduced him to an architect, Richard Morris Hunt. At the time, neither Bartholdi nor Hunt anticipated that ten years later, in 1881, Hunt would be selected to design the pedestal for the liberty statue. Hunt had trained as an architect in Paris and was well known in the U.S. by the time of his selection – architect Louis Sullivan referred to Hunt as the “dean of the profession.”
I was very fortunate to be able to examine sections of Hunt’s journals and the unpublished biography written by his wife, Catherine Clinton Howland Hunt, when Hunt’s papers were housed at the Octagon, the Museum of the American Architectural Foundation, in Washington, D.C. The Richard Morris Hunt Collection was subsequently packed up when the Foundation’s office was preparing to move; recently the entire collection was acquired by the Library of Congress, where it should become accessible once again. The Collection includes a number of drawings of alternative design concepts that were considered for the pedestal.
Also among Hunt’s papers are calculations from the office of Gustave Eiffel. Eiffel’s firm designed the structural framework that supports the copper skin of the statue. The base of the structure is secured to the pedestal, so it was important that Eiffel’s office document the design loads at the tower legs for the American designers of the pedestal and the foundation. The calculations reveal how well Eiffel’s engineers understood the effects of wind on a structure and were, in some ways, well ahead of their time. Having worked as a structural engineer myself, it was fascinating to see these design records.
Emblems of liberty
Neither Auguste Bartholdi, the statue’s designer, nor Edouard Laboulaye, the statue’s primary advocate in France, who guided the project from idea to construction, explained the choice and intended symbolism of the emblems of liberty that are part of the statue. Instead, when they discussed the design, they focused on the statue as a whole, emphasizing that this liberty figure embodied the achievements of the United States and the freedom that, in Laboulaye’s words, “bears peace and enlightenment everywhere.”
I found that books about the statue had taken a similar approach, saying very little about the design details such as: the torch Lady Liberty raises in her right hand; the book (or tablet) she holds in her left arm; the broken chain she tramples underfoot; and the seven-rayed headdress crowning her head.
I felt, however, that it was important to examine these individually and to try to understand why each had been selected.
There was a long history of liberty figures that provided the basis for Bartholdi’s design. Yet Bartholdi and Laboulaye wanted this liberty figure to not only have universal meaning but also celebrate American achievements more directly, and Bartholdi’s visit to the United States in 1871 gave him ideas for ways to associate the statue with the life of the American people. As I studied the various influences on the statue design, I was impressed with how Bartholdi blended traditional liberty symbolism with elements that more specifically honor the American experience. In Enlightening the World, I look at each symbolic element of the design. Although some aspects of the statue are generally agreed upon, much of my discussion of the design and many of the conclusions I make are original to my work.