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Published: 23, March 2015
Historically, America has been seen as a beacon of hope to the oppressed. As Yasmin Sabina Khan explains in Enlightening The World, The American experience has shown the fragility of liberty, even in a political system founded on its cause. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteen Amendment to the Constitution, and the triumph of the Union in the Civil War had unequivocally confirmed the commitment of the United States to the principle of ‘liberty to all’. Liberty figures were common in the United States during the reconstruction era, and the building of monuments is a common means of expression. It would seem appropriate then, to build a monument to commemorate this commitment (Khan 15).
The Statue of Liberty was first proposed in conceptual form by French politician Edouard Laboulaye, in the mid-1860’s, and was designed by Frederic Bartholdi, while the pedestal was designed by Richard Mooris Hunt. The Statue of Liberty represents more than a colossal monument that sits on Liberty Island in the Upper New York Bay, it is the iconic symbol of freedom in the United States. However, there are different understandings of freedom in this nation, and some have varied since the time the statue was originally built; in addition, each time a change occurred, the Statue of Liberty’s interpretation also changed. The elucidation of the statue directly correlates with the meaning and value of freedom. There are three primary analyses: the intentional symbolism of the designers, the meaning of the statue to immigrants (during the time known as the age of immigration), and its modern construal.
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The inherent symbolism in the Statue of Liberty, is just that, a group of static symbols that the designers incorporated for a specific reason. This is derived from how the people living during that time period viewed freedom. The international relations between the United States and France during this period are largely responsible for the creation of the statue. When President Abraham Lincoln spoke at the cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, he defined the Civil War for Americans and the world (Khan 8).
Lincoln consistently emphasized the important role of the United States in assisting aspiring republics. Events in the United States were of great importance to those in Europe who longed for a new birth of freedom in their own countries. In France, Edouard Laboulaye summarized France’s historical commitment to the United States in an article titled The United States and France. His analysis so impressed the American consul-general in Paris, John Bigelow, that Bigelow asked permission to reproduce the article as a pamphlet for distribution, where it made its way to the United States and much of France (Khan 10). From then on, Laboulaye remained a firm supporter of the Union cause and Lincoln’s pursuit of the war. Just after winning the Civil War and having the Thirteenth Amendment passed, the shocking news of Lincoln’s death precipitated an outpouring of grief in France and around the world (Khan 12). Nations often asserted their identity and commemorated national heroes; groups proclaimed their particular interests. Allegorical personification was used to depict abstract concepts, and liberty was a favored theme. The monument that Laboulaye suggested in 1865 would represent liberty and the establishment of the States in a manner only a friend could achieve. It would be built, he proposed, in the same spirit of kinship that [â€¦] characterized the collaboration between two peoples during the American War for Independence (Khan 15).
The designer of the pedestal, Richard Mooris Hunt, was one of the most highly esteemed architects in America. Hunt’s initial proposal in late 1881 anticipated a relatively simple granite shaft of great height, 180 feet, but as Hunt began to focus on the project, [â€¦] he seems to have understood the ancient heritage of the colossal sculpture (Khan 148). Hunt often referred his designs to the Pharos at Alexandria, which had served to mark the shore and harbor of the ancient Egyptian city; indeed, many similarities existed between the two locations, as well as their functions, purpose, and meaning. The design that was finally agreed upon in the summer of 1884 was certain to raise the statue adequately enough to be seen from a distance-a height of 89 feet. Often buildings associated with the ancient world, yet using an interpretation consistent with early-eighteenth-century, were desirable so that they would be connected to the nation’s formative history. Hunt’s pedestal design contains elements of classical architecture, including Doric portals, and the large mass is fragmented with architectural detail to focus attention on the statue. The pedestal is a truncated pyramid, square at the base and at the top. The four sides are identical in appearance. Above the door on each side, Hunt still wished to identify the pedestal with the United States, therefore he planned two features: a horizontal band of shields engraved with each state’s coat of arms, and a dedicatory inscription in the area below the central porch, but neither ever made it into the final design (Bartholdi 62 and Khan 154). Above that, a balcony was placed on each side, framed by pillars. Bartholdi designed an observation platform near the top of the pedestal, above which the statue itself rises. The foundation of the statue was to be laid inside Fort Wood, a rarely used army base on Bedloe’s Island, and the fortifications of the structure were in the shape of an eleven-point star. The statue’s foundation and pedestal were to be aligned so that it would face southeast, greeting ships entering the harbor from the Atlantic Ocean (Bartholdi 62). The primary purpose of the pedestal was to set the tone and establish a significant setting for the liberty statue. While the pedestal is undeniably an important piece of the Statue of Liberty, the majority of the symbolism lies in the statue itself.
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When Edouard Laboulaye first proposed a monument to liberty and the independence of the United States during a dinner party, Frederic Bartholdi of France was among the evening’s guests. Bartholdi was by this time already gaining a reputation as a sculptor with a goodly array of excellent works. As a youth, he had received his training from highly respected artists in Paris; and as a recognized sculptor, he mingled with other artists in the capital (Khan 47). The attitude of the Colossus at Rhodes, a statue said to be so large that ships had no problem sailing through its legs to reach the harbor, honoring the struggle to gain freedom while triumphantly holding forth freedom’s bright light, might have suggested a corresponding attitude for the American liberty statue. Similar to the ancient statue, Bartholdi’s modern colossus would proclaim accomplishment while acknowledging the effort and dedication involved in attaining liberty (Khan 102).
Statues celebrating liberty and patriotism had often grasped a shield in one hand and a raised sword in the other [â€¦ which] appears in statues and painting decorating the Capitol, often balanced by symbols of peace and triumph (Khan 103). Bartholdi’s figure went a step further, relinquishing shield and sword for symbols of peace. In her raised hand, he placed a torch, as he and Laboulaye later emphasized burned not with an inflammatory flame, but with the passion of enlightenment. The enlightening torch was a favored symbol in the nineteenth century, commonly associated with justice and liberty. It also represented the victory of light over darkness, which related to the special role of the United States as an exemplary republic, enlightening the world. An additional aspect of the symbolic flame, especially relevant for those who recognized the fragility of liberty in the years surrounding the Civil War, is its dependence on the attention of those already on shore. As demonstrated in the ancient tradition, [â€¦] those who have received the gift of light are tasked with keeping it shining for eternity. Another design element was a broken chair, trampled underfoot. This feature was a sign of America’s independence from British authority and a symbol of resolution. Another important symbol concerns the head-covering for the statue. Originally designed to be a simple Roman pileus, Bartholdi later added sun rays, which represented divine inspiration-but also reminded people of Benjamin Franklin’s story of the sun rising on the nation, giving it fresh persistence. The inclusion of the sun also points to the exemplary republic’s role as the sun of the political community, providing inspiration to others. The sun headdress could have had any number of rays; Bartholdi selected seven. Because the statue symbolizes liberty’s enlightenment of the world, the seven rays represent light shining across the seven seas to the seven continents. Another direct association can be made to the crown as well, in that there are seven wonders of the ancient world, and it is this ancestry on which the liberty statue is founded. Bartholdi’s later models reflect one last major decision, regarding the emblem to be placed in the hand of the statue. In the arm of the statue, to be grasped by her left hand, they placed a tablet, which Laboulaye described as tablets of the law. The tablet referred to the law that Moses delivered to the Israelites in the desert; as a symbol of contemporary meaning, it was understood to represent a nation’s constitution. This dual meaning had a rational basis, in that reverence for law is essential to the endurance of a constitutional government. The richly symbolic tablet the statue holds in her arm, complemented by her enlightening torch, demonstrates that the people of the nation embraced a different way of realizing freedom, not with sword and shield but with law and light. On the tablet itself, Bartholdi chose not to identify the tablet solely as the Constitution. Instead, he wrote the date of the Declaration of Independence on the tablet. This was written in Roman numerals as July IV, MDCCLXXVI, which matches the example set by the founders in the design for the Great Seal of the United States (Khan 106-111). The statue contains a great many symbols, but the plaque at the base of the statue set in stone how the Statue of Liberty would be looked at for generations, and is the epitome of how the public at that time viewed freedom.
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Emma Lazarus, descended of Jewish immigrants of the seventeenth century, was appalled at the anti-Semitism that had gained momentum in much of Russia and parts of Europe. When originally asked to dedicate a work to the statue she declined; it was only after a large influx of immigrant refugees entered into America, and after she subsequently became involved with humanitarian aid, that she imbued her sonnet The New Colossus with immense emotion. Extending the experience of the Russian immigrants to that of all newcomers, she penned the sonnet to skillfully bring together the past, present, and future, offering compassion and hope while displaying her pride in the horizon that America offers (Khan 166):
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land,
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A might woman, with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin-cities frame.
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! cries she,
With silent lips. Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free;
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore-
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me-
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
This sonnet is uniquely associated with the statue of liberty, and subsequently is inscribed on a plaque at the base of the statue. The culmination of all of these symbols, thoughts, and wars leads one to conclude that in the years after the Civil War, Americans and Europe put a different value on freedom and democracy. But the fundamental meaning of democracy is not political in this situation. Democracy is a social system based on equality. A democratic world is one in which people assume that everyone is the equal of everyone else, and during no other time was this less apparent than the post-Civil War era. Often, the easiest way to understand a word is by learning its antonym. The antonym for democracy, in this sense, is aristocracy, a social system based on hereditary ranks in which everyone has subordinates and superiors. In democratic societies, people may not have the same amount of money, or brains, or beauty, but they expect to be treated as the moral and legal and social equals of everyone else, whose opinions deserve equal respect (Kahan 37). The reality in the South after the Civil War can more closely be related to an aristocracy than a democracy. Indeed, the majority of Europe at this time was in fact aristocracy, and America was the lone exception, as noted by Alexis de Tocqueville. De Tocqueville claimed that democracy is inevitable, being more than just aristocracy. Tocqueville was obsessed with democracy in America, for he knew it would be the fate of the world. A great democratic revolution is taking place among us, there is no doubt in my mind that sooner or later we will come, as the Americans have come, to an almost complete equality of conditions. He wondered: What does democracy mean for freedom? In his examination of democracy in America, he was looking for lessons from which Europe might profit (de Tocqueville 224, 364). I am firmly of the opinion that the democratic revolution to which we are witness is an irresistible fact and one that it would be neither desirable nor wise to oppose [â€¦] The point that de Tocqueville is making is clear: democracy is inevitable. Don’t fight it. It will soon be self-evident that all human beings are created equal (de Tocqueville 6-7). As one can see by de Tocqueville’s observations and subsequent summary of American freedom and liberty, people of this age highly regarded inherent natural rights-countries and citizens were waging wars for these ideals. These views, that democracy was something to be earned, highly regarded, preserved among all else, shape what it meant to live in America and what the Statue of Liberty meant to people in America during that period.
The United States has long taken pride that its history lies in the fact that it was created by brave and determined immigrants. Pilgrims, Quakers, and other early settlers of colonial America are icons of the nation’s history. They were then followed by millions of English, German, and Irish immigrants who helped build America’s early cities, settle its vast interior, and harness its rich bounty of natural resources for economic advancement. When the Civil War came to a close in 1865 after four years of bloodshed, immigration to the United States swelled to its largest levels. The period from 1870 to 1924 became the age of immigration in America, as immigrants made the voyage to the United States by the millions. Most of them decided to uproot themselves and make a new start because of poverty and oppression in their homelands. They set their sights on the United States because of the country’s global reputation as a place of political and religious freedom, economic opportunity, and plentiful land and resources (Hillstrom 4). To many people around the world looking to make better lives for themselves, America shone like a beacon of hope. In the post-Civil War era, the ethnic background of America’s immigrants underwent a remarkable shift. Irish immigration levels dropped from 46 percent of the total in the year 1840 and 37 percent in the year 1850 to only 4.2 percent by the close of the century. The downturn in immigration from Germany, the other major source of immigrants at mid-century, was just as dramatic. In 1860, Germans accounted for 35 percent of all immigrants arriving in America. Fifty years later, only 2.7 percent of the nation’s new arrivals came from Germany (Hillstrom 24). These immigrants were replaced by a new wave of people who came to America from Italy, Eastern Europe, and Austria-Hungary; these immigrants-Poles, Czechs, Germans, Ukrainians, Serbs, and other ethnic groups were all looking forward to a better life in America.
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