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The History of the Statue of Liberty

Most Americans today take for granted the Statue of Liberty as an icon of American values. The familiar green statue, torch in hand, makes appearances in popular culture; U.S. stamps, coins and currency; advertising; and pretty much anywhere that a patriotic image is deemed necessary. It’s hard to imagine now, but the statue — whose official name is Liberty Enlightening the World — began its life with some controversy.

The early years

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It’s common knowledge that the Statue of Liberty was a gift of the French to the United States. But why would the French go to the trouble and expense of designing, building and shipping a large metal statue to a country on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean?

The answer: Politics.

The idea was hatched by French historian and abolitionist Édouard Rene de Laboulaye, a staunch supporter of Abraham Lincoln and the efforts of the Union in the U.S. Civil War. As that war drew to a close, he proposed that if some monument were to be built in the U.S. to commemorate its independence and values as a free democracy, it should be built by both the U.S. and France, as a symbol of the democratic achievements of both nations.

France at the time had troubles of its own; it was under the repressive monarchy of Napoleon III. Laboulaye, who also opposed the French monarchy, believed that a monument to U.S. achievements could inspire the French people to call for the same gains for themselves.

Laboulaye shared this idea with sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, but nothing came of it until after Napoleon III was deposed during the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. Following the war, Laboulaye and Bartholdi traveled to the U.S. to drum up support for the idea. They proposed that a statue be built by France as a gift to the U.S., who would build a pedestal for it on an island in New York Harbor.

Construction and Dedication

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Although the idea was well received by influential Americans, including President Ulysses S. Grant, funding for the project was slow on both sides of the Atlantic. France was still recovering from its wartime defeat, and the U.S. was mired in an economic depression. Some in the U.S. didn’t think the project should be pursued at all, and some thought that France should pay for both the statue and the pedestal.

By the mid-1870s, however, Bartholdi had secured enough funding to start construction on the statue and built the torch-bearing arm first. This was shipped to the U.S. and put on display in various cities to help raise funds. In 1880, Bartholdi enlisted the aid of Gustave Eiffel (who later built the Eiffel Tower) to design and build the support structure for the statue.

By 1884, the statue was substantially complete but remained in France pending completion of the pedestal, which had been delayed by insufficient funding. It wasn’t until Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World newspaper, launched a public campaign to fund the pedestal (essentially by shaming people into contributing) that sufficient funding was achieved.

In 1885, the statue was dismantled, crated and sent on its way to New York, and the pedestal was completed in April 1886. Reassembly of the statue was eventually completed, and on October 28, 1886, President Grover Cleveland officially dedicated the statue.

Even the opening was not without controversy. African Americans pointed out that despite the end of slavery, Black people were still second-class citizens, and women suffrage activists noted the irony of a female figure representing “liberty” in a country where women could not vote.

The First 100 Years

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The Statue of Liberty soon became a welcoming symbol of new life and new opportunity to the many thousands of European immigrants who sailed into New York Harbor and were processed at nearby Ellis Island. By the 1930s, the National Park Service took over the administration of the statue, and it became one of the most-visited U.S. national monuments.

By the early 1980s, however, it was clear that all was not well with Lady Liberty. Corrosion was taking its toll on both the outer copper sheeting and the interior structure. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed former Chrysler Corporation head Lee Iacocca to lead a public-private partnership to renovate the statue inside and out. Over $350 million was raised for the renovation work, which was completed in 1986, in time for the 100th anniversary of the statue’s original construction.

Statue of Liberty Fun Facts

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Access to the torch was closed to the public following a 1916 terrorist attack by German saboteurs in nearby Jersey City, N.J., and has remained closed ever since.

The path of the 1886 Manhattan parade to celebrate the dedication of the statue included Wall Street, where stockbrokers threw ticker tapes out of their office windows, thus starting the tradition of the ticker-tape parade.

The torch flame was originally made of copper but was replaced in 1916 by stained glass designed by Gutzon Borglum, who also sculpted Mount Rushmore. With the 1986 renovation, the torch was completely replaced, and the flame is now covered in 24-karat gold.

Several smaller replicas of the statue exist in France. A full-size replica of the flame in Paris has become an unofficial memorial to Princess Diana, who died in an automobile accident in a tunnel underneath the flame.

Cover image credit: Flory / iStock

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