There's a difference between what inspires a statue to come into creation and what a statue represents, and it's an interesting one when it comes to the Statue of Liberty. The inspiration for the Statue of Liberty is said to have occurred at a specific time and place, and among a particular group of people. But the mainstream meaning of the Statue of Liberty has evolved over time, and generally fits into one of three categories, as most school kids' essays can attest: 1. Universal concepts of freedom and liberty, 2. Liberty as it relates to the monarchs and autocrats of old Europe, and/or 3. Poor and exhausted immigrant masses being welcomed beneath the protective wing of Liberty, mainly due to Emma Lazarus’s great classic epic, The New Colossus.
But with Martin Luther King Day just passed and Black History Month around the corner, it’s a good time to recognize an under-appreciated fact about the origins of the Statue of Liberty. The statue’s history, or what some might call its pre-history, and still others might call its inspiration, is solidly rooted in the end slavery in the US and the restoration of the Union at the end of the Civil War.
The statue, it is generally agreed, was conceived at a dinner party in 1865, 21 years before its unveiling in New York Harbor. Pete Hamill wrote about it in A Story to Remember, from New York magazine, May 12, 1986.
At a dinner party of fellow liberals in the summer of 1865 at Laboulaye's mansion in Glatigny, on the outskirts of Versaille, the talk was ebullient about the surrender of Lee and the end of slavery, the one great blot on the American experiment. But the talk was also darkened by news of the murder of Lincoln. Laboulaye spoke passionately about the joint history of modern France and the United States ("the two sisters") and recalled the great contributions made by the Marquis de Lafayette to the American cause....He said, "there you have the basis of American feeling for the French--an indestructible basis. The feeling honors the Americans as well as us, and if a monument should rise in the United States, as a memorial to their independence, I should think it only natural if it were built by united effort--a common work of both our nations."The passionate speaker was the abolitionist and great champion of American democracy, Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye, a French politician, historian and president of the French Anti-Slavery Society, as well as author of the 3-volume Political History of the United States.
Auguste Bartholdi, the statue’s sculptor, was also in attendance that night.
The sculptor's intended meaning for the statue is one thing, but the statue's inspiration, that is, why it should exist at all, is more complex. Following are two passages from the same book that demonstrate the semantic gray area between "meaning" and "inspiration." From The Statue of Liberty, by Cara Sutherland, Museum of the City of New York, p. 18.
Having an agreed-upon concept, Bartholdi could begin the modeling process. In recent years there has been much speculation that the statue was intended to be symbolic of an African slave—thereby representing abolitionist sentiments—because of the broken shackle and chain lying at her feet. But in keeping with Laboulaye and Bartholdi’s original source of inspiration for creating the statue, it is more likely that those items represent America’s break from European control and its ability to maintain political independence in the years following the Revolution. Although dedication speeches in 1886 would praise the Union’s victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the statue itself expresses a more general expression of political independence, in keeping with the intellectual climate of the time.Here are the opening lines of the same book, keeping in mind the words "original source of inspiration" from the above passage, p. 9.
An artist never knows when inspiration will strike. For the young French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, it was at a dinner party held in 1865 at Glatigny, the estate of the esteemed historian Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye. During the gathering, Bartholdi found himself included among a distinguished group of liberal politicians and intellectuals. Laboulaye counted many of France’s leading lights among his friends, and in attendance were Count Agenor de Gasparin and Henri Martin, advisory council members of the newly formed Comite Francais pour l’emancipation des esclaves (the French anti-slavery society of which Laboulaye was president), and politician Count Charles de Remusat.
After dinner, discussion turned to recent events in the United States: the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. How could this young country maintain democracy in the face of adversity while France, founded on many of the same principles during its own revolutionary moment, had stumbled off the path?The Statue of Liberty's meaning would be "inspired" by Greek classical ideals of freedom and democracy--she is the goddess Liberty. But the inspiration for a statue in the first place is said to have sprung from the two countries' friendship, the upcoming centenial of the US, and the struggle for survival of the democratic experiment on both continents.
But consider this, just a year after the dinner party in 1866 Laboulaye and his associates presented Mary Todd Lincoln with a gold medal carrying this inscription:
Lincoln, an honest man, he abolished slavery, restored the union, saved the republic, without veiling the statue of liberty
This was five years before Laboulaye gave Bartholdi the commission to build the Statue of Liberty; Abolished slavery...without veiling the statue of liberty.
Though I don't normally practice historical what ifs, think about it this way--would the president of the French Anti-Slavery Society, whose brainchild the statue was, come up with the idea for a Statue of Liberty, in 1865 or any year, had the Civil War not been fought and won by the Union? If the French-US friendship and the 100th anniversary of the United States were the inspirational factors for the Statue of Liberty, they themselves were inspired--and worth paying tribute to--precisely because of the abolition of slavery in the US and the end of the Civil War. The African American saga and the triumph of human rights over slavery were front and center to the inspired talk on the night the Statue of Liberty was conceived.
But the statue would have a universal meaning. So universal, in fact, that Bartholdi first attempted build her over the Suez Canal in 1867! But his efforts failed to gain traction with Ismail Pasha of Egypt and in 1871 Laboulaye gave him the commission to build the Statue of Liberty in the United States.
When the statue was unveiled in 1886 it was the Gilded Age in America, and 20 years since the end of the Civil War. It would be the equivalent of recalling the invasion of Kuwait today. And it would be nearly another 20 years before Emma Lazarus's epic poem, now tucked away in so many books of poetry since 1883, would be re-discovered and connected to the statue.
At the unveiling, Liberty Enlightening the World (the statue's official name) was meant to send a trans-Atlantic message. For Bartholdi and a great many people the Statue of Liberty represented the triumphal forces of liberty and democracy radiating out, from new continent to old; the new ideals being shown to the monarchies of old Europe.
Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World Oil, Edward Moran, 1886. Museum of the City of New York
Indeed, some people had trouble grasping its meaning. As Liberty and Freedom, by David Hackett Fischer describes it (p. 374),
Not everybody liked it. Philadelphians thought it belonged on the Delaware River. New England Yankees complained that the Statue of Liberty was too big, too vulgar, too foreign, too French, and too New York. The conservative Boston poet James Russell Lowell wrote that it was overdone, and he could not see the point of it.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum was a Russian radical, Aleksandra Kollontai, who thought it was “pitiful” and “shrunken”…The Roman Catholic clergy were hostile in yet another way. They raged against a pagan female idol of liberty, which gave them four reasons to dislike it.But Emma Lazarus would single-handedly "turn our telescopes around" in how we viewed the statue. She wrote The New Colossus for an auction in 1883 to raise funds for the pedestal; it was published and promptly forgotten about. Lazarus was a poet and great humanitarian, having volunteered to help indigent immigrants on Ward's Island. She passed away at 38, in 1887. A friend, Georgina Shuyler re-discovered the poem in a secondhand bookshop in 1903 and was instantly struck be the force of its message. She persuaded others, and a bronze plaque was set on the statue. With the poem, and people's immediate connection to it, the statue changed from one of beaming liberty outward, to one of protection and relief for the new arrivals, almost seeming to bless them. As well, many halfhearted enthusiasts and outright critics came around, many people now "got it."
This is how most people relate to the Statue of Liberty today. The sonnet is virtually synonymous with the statue; the Gettysburg Address of immigration: classic, epic.
And though the Statue of Liberty’s meaning might have changed over time, its inspiration can never change. And if it was at that dinner held in 1865 where they discussed, to quote the medal, Lincoln’s ability to “abolish slavery, restore the union, and save the republic, without veiling the statue of liberty,” then it's pretty strong evidence that the Civil War, the ultimate fight for Civil Rights, was a large factor in the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty. That the meaning of the statue is different from her inspiration serves only to give us more levels on which to honor her.
So let's look at her a bit.
The pedestal and the Statue were built on Fort Wood, one of four forts built in the harbor to prepare for the War of 1812. The pedestal was created by the great architect Richard Morris Hunt, and financed by the American people.
When seen from different perspectives the statue changes form and movement .
From one vantage point she seems stable and still. Her beacon, first considered to be "enlightening the world," was turned inward and became a guiding light, showing the passage to the New World, welcoming and offering opportunity to new arrivals.
She is most active from the vantage point of ships entering the harbor. Here she steps out of broken chains of bondage.
From the back, the sense of forward movement is combined with a sense of strength and stability.
Aside the statue she appears stable, with America at her back, transmitting many messages from that time in history.