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The Statue of Liberty: France’s Gift to America

Statue of Liberty 1963

The first time I saw the Statue of Liberty was in 1963, the year this photo was taken. My grandparents, in a spirit of incredible courage & generosity, took my cousins & I on a car trip to see American monuments across the United States.

View from Liberty's Crown

We took the ferry across from a pier in Lower Manhattan and crossed the harbor to Liberty Island where we disembarked to visit the statue. Scaling the interior stairs to peer out Liberty’s crown was the equivalent of climbing the height of a 20-story building. I’d like to say I had profound thoughts, but I was just an average middle-schooler smart enough not to complain about the climb.

Creating the Statue of Liberty

Liberty's face before workers unpacked her crate

June 17, 1885 is the day the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor, not as the behemoth structure we see today, but with her attributes distributed among 200 crates.

The monument’s original name was Liberté éclairant le monde which translates at Liberty Enlightening the World. Her spiritual inspiration was the Roman goddess of Liberty: Libertas. Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor who designed the monument, modeled Liberty’s face after his mother.

Liberty's feet, standing on shackles

French intellectual Edouard de Laboulaye conceived of the statue in 1865 as a way to honor American democratic ideals and celebrate the end of slavery in the United States. At the bottom of the statue, in a location visitors can’t see, Liberty’s feet stand on broken shackles symbolizing the end of oppression.

The statue was also a gift from France to America symbolizing the centennial of American independence in 1876 and the long friendship between France and the United States. Laboulaye requested President Grant to site the new statue on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor where it could be seen by all incoming vessels. [In 1956 Congress passed a joint resolution to change the name of Bedloe’s Island to Liberty Island.]

Bartholdi's drawing of the Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty Being Reassembled

Under sculptor Bartholdi’s direction, French artisans began building the statue in 1876. That year, the arm holding Liberty’s torch was shown at the American Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Two years later, the head and shoulders were exhibited at the Paris Universal Exposition. Finally, in 1884, the statue was complete. It was disassembled into 200 crates and loaded onto a French naval ship which arrived in New York on June 17, 1885.

The pedestal, however, was still under construction, so it wasn’t until the following year that workmen put Liberty back together. First, Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel’s iron pylon and steel framework became the statue’s skeleton. Lightweight copper sheets provided a skin that was able to move independently from the framework so Liberty would not be harmed by strong harbor winds.

The Statue of Liberty was one of the greatest technological achievements of the 19th century. The monument weighed 225 tons and, including the pedestal, rose to a height of 305 feet.

Evening Post list of events for Liberty's dedication

The Statue of Liberty Becomes an American Sentinel

On October 28, 1886, celebrations broke out in New York City for the dedication and unveiling of the  Statue of Liberty. At 10:00 a parade more than two miles long made its way down Fifth Avenue. American army troops followed by 100 brass bands led representatives from French societies, judges, governors, mayors, war veterans, police forces, firefighters, and members from Masonic orders of the Knights of Pythias and Knights Templar. 

Boats in harbor salute Liberty's unveiling

At 1:00 the parade reached Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan island where participants stood in pouring rain and fog. Events continued when cannon fired to open the naval parade on the Hudson River.

At 2:00 Bedloe’s Island became the center of events. After several speeches, Bartholdi dropped the French flag that covered Liberty’s face from her crown. Guns fired salutes from the island that were answered by warships in the harbor.

Votes for Women poster

In the midst of the smoke and noise, a small unauthorized boat crossed the harbor to Bedloe’s Island. Several suffragists disembarked and declared that “in erecting a statue of Liberty embodied as a woman in a land where no woman has political liberty, men have shown a delightful inconsistency which excites the wonder and admiration of the opposite sex.”

President Grover Cleveland

The women’s declaration didn’t deter American President Grover Cleveland’s remarks as he accepted France’s gift to the United States. Liberty, he said, was a sentinel-goddess “keeping watch before the gates of America.”

After the ceremonies, dignitaries continued their celebrations at Delmonico’s. During the after-dinner speeches, American international attorney Frédéric Coudert declared, “Today the Statue of Liberty has become American . . . It therefore enjoys all the rights of a citizen — or, rather, a female citizen.”

In 1924 the Statue of Liberty became a National Monument. Sixty years later UNESCO named the Statue of Liberty as a World Heritage Site, noting that the statue is a masterpiece of the human spirit that brings together art and engineering in a powerful way. Liberty has also endured as a symbol of liberty, peace, human rights, the abolition of slavery, democracy, and opportunity.

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Sandra’s Books: Ambition, Arrogance & PrideSaxon HeroinesTwo CoinsRama’s Labyrinth.

Illustrations & A Few Sources

Statue of Liberty 1963 by Wilford Peloquin; Statue of Liberty Crown by Shawn Collins; Liberty’s Face when the crates were unpacked 1885; Derivative work of Statue of Liberty’s feet from photo taken by NPS, by Atsme; Bartholdi’s Design for the Statue of Liberty; Assembling Statue of Liberty; Front Page, New York Evening Post, Oct. 28, 1886; Unveiling Statue of Liberty by Edward Moran, 1886; Votes for Women by Hilda Dallas, 1909; Grover Cleveland print 1888. Francesca Lidia Viano. “Sentinel.” Places Journal. October 2018; “Creating the Statue of Liberty, National Park Service; Statue of Liberty; UNESCO.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.

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