The Statue of Liberty and Fake News

It’s funny how people seek to exploit any opportunity for their own purposes.

Take for example one Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a statue maker in France. As a young man, he had visited Egypt, and witnessed the construction of a channel between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. He personally proposed a massive statue to the Viceroy of Egypt (the Khedive), in the figure of a woman which would also serve as a lighthouse for ships making passage through the Suez Canal. But as often happens in life, this dream didn’t come true for Bartholdi.

But then Bartholdi heard of a French anti-slavery activist named Edouard de Laboulaye, who at the end of American Civil War proposed that a statue representing liberty be built for the (still) United States… presumably inspired by the American abolition of slavery. It was envisioned to be timed to arrive at the centennial of the US, and represent “Liberty Enlightening the World”.

Bartholdi jumped at it. Here was his chance to build his giant woman sculpture at last, complete with lighthouse. Fittingly, he selected an island where ships would navigate the narrow passage into harbor, and to top it all off, his mother would be the model for the work.

Work began late, starting the year of the American centennial, and only the arm was delivered. The sculptor did much of the fundraising himself, charging for tours of it’s construction, selling souvenirs, even charging to exhibit the arm at the Centennial in Philadelphia… but it was American Joseph Pulitzer who saw the project over the finish line when he promised to print the name of every donor to the work in his newspaper… which perhaps smelled like an opportunity to him. After all… all of those donors would buy the paper just to read their name. Capitalism at work.

Still, the total effort took 15 years, and Americans really didn’t seem at all excited about it until photos of the statue, assembled in France, began to circulate. Eventually, Boston and New York got into a bit of a rivalry when Boston made a play to have the statue moved there. The fight to keep Lady Liberty in New York became somewhat of a sensation. Ulysses Grant authorized the location, specifying that she also be the lighthouse Bartholdi wanted.

Edouard de Laboulaye, the anti-slavery activist, was a member of the Union League Club which was dedicated to the Republican Party, the abolition of slavery and the Union’s cause. He approached the club’s chairman, one William Evarts, senior statesman and lawyer, to aid in the funding efforts to construct the pedestal for the statue. What a handsome trophy following the Union victory. Evarts and his wife went searching for cash… among the avenues taken they approached poet Emma Lazarus to write a poem to sell at auction. She refused. But the Evarts’ knew of her volunteer work with recent immigrants and convinced her to join their cause by suggesting that immigrants to the country would see the statue first thing as they came in by ship. She agreed to help.

Lazarus delivered the poem “The New Colossus” to the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund that linked the massive lady to her interest in immigrants. Apparently it sold, though what price it fetched may be lost to time.

The poem was forgotten, the statue was built in 1886, protested by women who were jealous of Lady Liberty being unveiled in a land where they weren’t free to vote. The suffragettes chartered a boat to circle the island, blasting protest speeches (which apparently doesn’t change, even when women can vote), but steam whistles and cannon fire suffocated their efforts.

And as it happened, Lazarus died a year later in 1887.

The end. Almost.

17 years later, now in the 20th century, Georgina Schuyler, friend to Lazarus, found a book containing The New Colossus in a bookshop and endeavored to have it inscribed on a plaque and place it at the statue as a memorial to her friend. Nice friend! It now resides on the inner wall of the statue pedestal.

Many agendas were at work to bring Lady Liberty to America, but the one we know least about is the agenda of those that took the words of that poet, one of many contributors to an auction funding the cement pedestal… to alter the meaning of the entire statue right out from under those that envisioned it changing it from a celebration of liberty inspired by the freeing of slaves, modeled after the mother of the sculptor and intended to serve as a lighthouse… into an icon to represent accepting masses of the unwashed poor into America without discernment of any kind… all thanks to a woman that liked volunteering to work with immigrants and her friend that thought a memorial to the dead poet would be a nice thing to do.

No… Lady Liberty was not a gift from the French government to the US government. Nor does she have anything to do with immigration.

It’s about time we stop using her to drive immigration policy, and instead see her as intended: A vision of Freedom from oppressive law… designed, built and paid for by common citizenry.