Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Statue of Liberty

Spangle your banners and don your tricorne hats, because learnalittle is getting patriotic. Today’s post gives a glimpse at America’s favorite Frenchwoman: the Statue of Liberty.

As legend has it, New York’s Lady Liberty was first conceived of at the 1865 dinner party of French politician Édouard René de Laboulaye. Laboulaye made an off-handed comment suggesting a US monument to freedom built by both nations, which struck home with young sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi. Bartholdi imagined a tremendous lighthouse styled as a torch-wielding ancient Egyptian peasant, based on the Colossus of Rhodes in the Suez Canal of Port Said. Luckily for America (sorry, Egypt), this initial plan never got off the ground.

In 1871, Bartholdi visited the States to stir interest in Laboulaye’s original suggestion. On the trip, he discovered a small island near the mouth of New York Harbor. By 1875, Laboulaye announced that the statue – titled Liberty Enlightening the World – would be constructed and paid for by the French, with the Americans funding the pedestal it stood on. Despite some skepticism, most of France welcomed the proposal. Construction continued through rich backers and aggressive fundraising – Bartholdi even sold tickets to enter the then-unattached head and peer through the crown’s windows. By 1884, the completed statue awaited its American pedestal.

Although France generally supported the project, Americans seemed more reluctant. The country was climbing out of depression, and many felt having to pay for the pedestal made for a very half-hearted gift. Regardless, the needed amount was eventually collected thanks to donations, funding drives, and auctions spearheaded by financial and cultural leaders of the time. In fact, Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” sonnet (“Give me your tired, your poor…”) was initially penned as an auction item to fund the pedestal, before it was immortalized in the statue’s museum in 1903.

Eventually, both the statue and pedestal were completed. After being shipped in pieces, the statue was reassembled and dedicated on October 28th, 1886. Her design – torch symbolizing the illuminating light of freedom and crown representing the seven continents and seas – aspires to freedom for all humanity.

But the story doesn’t end there. Although the statue was initially positioned to face expectant immigrants as they arrived, it incidentally faces something else. Directly across from the statue’s gaze is Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery, site of 1776’s Battle of Brooklyn: the United States Army’s first major engagement after declaring independence a few weeks prior. Atop Battle Hill – where a group of American riflemen were surrounded, shot, and buried – stands Lady Liberty’s lesser-known sibling, a statue of Minerva erected in 1920.

Through her connection to Battle Hill, the war-torn post-Civil War world in which she was built, and the difficulty and opposition in her creation, the Statue of Liberty embodies struggle as much as she does freedom. So, for those still struggling for the freedom and rights all humans deserve, remember the moral of the statue’s story: freedom’s not easy to come by, but it’s worth the fight.

Source: 1, 2, 3, 4