The Statue of Liberty

By the time the Puritans began joining the Pilgrims in America, the delivery of a farewell sermon had become customary. In 1629, then, when the Arbella was ready to set sail with the first boat load of Puritans, John Cotton rose to preach. He began with the text, "Moreover, I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own and move no more; neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more, as beforetime" (2 Sam 7:10). He went on to inspired his listeners "with the belief that they were the Lord's chosen people; destined, if they kept the covenant with him, to people and fructify this new Canaan in the western wilderness." From that moment America became the symbol of refuge for those seeking the promised land.

The industry of these early pioneers gradually tempered frontier life, so that the cultivation they hacked from an uncooperative wilderness attracted the attention and envy of Europe. Increasing numbers of people became willing to trade the rigors of immigration for the opportunity American freedom provided. The self-reliance and independence survival in the New World required fostered a deeper sense of liberty among its people. Meanwhile, European powers jockeyed for control of the continent. Their intrigue threatened the freedom Americans had come to expect. When war erupted, the new nation asked France for help. Lafayette led a contingent of French troops and offered tactical advice. His participation in American democracy led him to work for peaceable reform in his own nation upon his return there.

A successful American Revolution guaranteed a stable place of refuge for the rest of the world. Those oppressed by kings or clergy, or destitute through famine or poverty could flee to a better land. The universal freedom offered anyone reaching their shores finally motivated Americans to free their slaves. The French saw the Civil War as a divine struggle for human rights. Author Edouard de Laboulaye wrote, "Something told me that God would not forsake a people fighting to free four million human beings, a people that stand for liberty in our world as Greece stood for art, and Rome for conquest and dominion."

The Civil War cost America the lives of thousands, including its President. France was horrified at the assassination of President Lincoln. One of its newspapers, the "Le Phare de la Loire" collected monies for a gold medal to be presented to Lincoln's widow. The journalist who presented the medal to John Bigelow, the French diplomat in charge of American affairs, said to him, "Tell Mrs. Lincoln that in this box is the heart of France." The medal was inscribed with these words: "Dedicated by French democracy to Lincoln, twice elected President of the United States -- honest Lincoln who abolished slavery, reestablished the Union, and saved the Republic without veiling the statue of liberty."

About the same time that the medal was presented to Mrs. Lincoln the author Laboulaye proposed that France build a monument for the United States to celebrate Franco-American friendship and symbolize the American dream of liberty. Hopefully, it could be given on the centennial of their independence, July 4, 1876. Of those present at the dinner in which Laboulaye made his suggestion was a young sculptor named Auguste Bartholdi, a guest of the dinner's host. He expressed interest in making the monument.

Six years later Laboulaye held his own dinner, inviting some noteworthy and influential Frenchmen. Again he suggested that France give America a monument, this time calling it a "statue of liberty," perhaps recalling the inscription on the medal given Mrs. Lincoln. He argued that both the American and French democracies were intertwined. Someone asked what kind of statue it should be. Laboulaye replied, "If possible, it ought to be a statue that can be seen from the shores of America to the coast of France." Those present agreed and commissioned Bartholdi to create the statue.

Bartholdi's first task was to visit America and catch the flavor of its liberty. Upon his arrival he was struck with the wonderful and inspiring freedom that permeated every person and activity. He prayed, "May God be pleased to bless my efforts and my work and to crown it with success, the duration and moral influence which it ought to have."

The form of the statue had already been suggested by Laboulaye. In his book The Political History of the United States he had described liberty as "the daughter of the Gospel -- sister of justice and pity -- mother of equality, abundance, and peace." He had even suggested its official name, "Liberty Enlightening the World." Bartholdi used those suggestions. He crowned the woman with seven rays. They were seven radiant beams enlightening the seven continents and seven seas. He placed a torch in her right hand that was fully extended above her head. Like a light in a stormy night, it invited the world to the shores of freedom. In her left hand he placed the book of law with the date of July 4, 1776, inscribed in large Roman numerals. About her feet he made a chain attached to a broken shackle. Here was liberty, the mother of the gospel, free from tyranny, holding her light to a darkened world, and like Moses blessed with both the law encoded in a tablet and divine light radiating from the face.

France raised the money to construct and ship the statue. It was unveiled July 4, 1884, in Paris and then dismantled for transport. America provided the site. It followed Bartholdi's suggestion and placed it on Bedloe's Island, now called Liberty Island, in New York harbor. They used the walls of Fort Wood, which had recently been decommissioned, as a foundation. America was also to provide the pedestal for the statue. It was funded through private contributions.

Not all Americans were excited about the enterprise. Some thought the statue was a pagan symbol. A few likened it to Nebuchadnezzar's image. Such criticism slowed the collection of funds. In the urgency to raise the needed monies noted authors and artists were asked to create works for auction at a fund-raiser. One such author was Emma Lazarus. She was a Jewish woman, thirty-three at the time, who had snubbed Hebrew ideas. Only a short time before, she had reluctantly accompanied other women in her social circle to Ward Island. Russian persecution of the Jews had spilled over into the Baltics. Thousands had fled to America for refuge. New York was inundated with them. Many lived in sheds lining the East River. The women went to give relief to some Jewish refuges camped there.

Emma expected to see the rift-raft of Europe, illiterate and unkept, whom she called "the great unwashed." Instead, she found old men reading Greek and Latin texts, young men discussing poetry in English, and gracious women speaking in cultured tones. She met "men of brilliant talents and accomplishments -- the graduates of Russian Universities, scholars of Greek as well as Hebrew, and familiar with the principal European tongues." These were not rift-raft. As she watched them burn with the zeal of freedom while engaged in menial drudgery, she understood the meaning and power of American liberty. The imperialistic regimes, the division of classes, the ruined palaces with the stench of a dead past all seemed to have some bearing on the figure soon to rise in New York harbor.

At first Emma thought she had no time to comply with the request for a poem, but one came to her. Two days later she presented it and it raised $1500.00. It was not noticed again until 1903. At that time Georgiana Schuyler found a yellowed copy of it in a New York bookstore. Inspired by it, she made and mounted a bronze plaque of it on the second landing inside the statue's base. It reads,

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 mighty 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 be free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my burning lamp beside the golden door!"

The Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York harbor on October 28, 1886. President Grover Cleveland accepted it on behalf of the American people. Foremost in the harbor it was one of the first sights the nearly seventeen million anxious immigrants saw on their way to Ellis Island, the portal to justice, equality and liberty. It silently testified they had arrived at the appointed place, a place of their own to move no more, a place where the children of wickedness could no longer afflict them as before.