A Lady of the Lake

1871, The Atlantic Ocean:

A determined Fréderic Auguste Bartholdi stares out at the vast Atlantic Ocean. He strokes his beard as the high seas wind blows through his hair. Paris lies behind him, and the ocean steamer slices through the steel-gray waters bound for the eastern shores of America. The challenging maritime passage will take a little more than a week and Bartholdi, a man of purpose, has a lot on his mind. Bartholdi’s luggage contains conceptual sketches and a small model of a proposed statue.

The face of the Statue of Liberty after its delivery on June 17, 1885
Construction of the skeleton and plaster surface of the left arm and hand of the Statue of Liberty.

Frederic was no idle dreamer, but a respected mid-career sculptor and a former officer in the French militia during the Franco-Prussian War. For the French artist, trained in painting, sculpture, and architecture, the treasured designs represented a long-held passion.

Preceding the voyage, he had met with Édouard Laboulaye, an influential political thinker and the founder of the Franco-American Union. Laboulaye admired the democratic government in America and as a nonviolent abolitionist felt that the end of American slavery was the last notch to the U.S. becoming the light of democracy to the world. The French Third Republic, a parliamentary model, would arise from the embers of Napoleon III’s Second Empire in the wake of its Franco-Prussian War defeat. In 1865, as France regrouped from this setback, the country still had divided opinions between monarchists and others such as Laboulaye, who favored the ideals of the Enlightenment (the belief that people had natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).

As a well-known sculptor, Bartholdi had been commissioned to create a bust of Laboulaye, a classic practice for prominent citizens during that era. The artist discovered that he was in tune with his subject’s outlook. Bartholdi could relate to the love of liberty—his home region of Alsace had been annexed by the Prussians. Laboulaye suggested that a monument be created as a gift from France to honor the perseverance of freedom and democracy in the United States. Representing a symbol of friendship between the two nations, Laboulaye hoped such a monument would inspire the French nation as well. He felt Bartholdi could be the man to make this monument, in no matter what form it would take, a reality.

For his part, Bartholdi also had a long-cherished dream from a sculptor’s point of view. In 1855, as a younger artist, he had visited Abu Simbel in the intriguing desert country of Egypt and marveled at the colossal sculpted figures who stood over the tombs of ancient times. Their magnificence stayed in the artist’s mind, and he dreamed of building a massive lighthouse in the shape of a woman.

There was little question Bartholdi loved “bigness.” His zeal resulted in

a proposal to Egypt that envisioned a huge female statue to stand at the newly constructed Suez Canal. Early models of the proposal had been titled Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia. However, Egypt, concerned about mammoth expenses after the costly Suez Canal project, declined Bartholdi’s proposition.

As time passed, the artist held on to his dream of creating such a project. Years later in meeting Eduard Laboulaye with his Franco-American Union vision of liberty and enlightenment, Bartholdi realized his sculptural dream project could be adapted, and both men’s visions merged.

“Propose to our friends over there to make with us a monument, a common work, in remembrance of the ancient friendship of France and the United States. If you find a plan that will excite public enthusiasm, we are convinced that it will be successful on both continents, and we will do a work that will have a far-reaching moral effect,” Laboulaye had told the sculptor.

Armed with his charming manner and letters of introduction to influential Americans, those words lingered in Bartholdi’s mind. “How would the American people react to Laboulaye’s proposal?” he pondered while standing on the deck of the ocean steamer as the intimidating Atlantic waters loomed before him.

Upon arriving, the sculptor also became the marketer as he mingled with American society, gauging interest in the symbolic statue that he and Laboulye envisioned. They proposed that Liberty Lighting the World, as Bartholdi then called Lady Liberty, be a joint project between the two nations. France would produce the statue as a gift to the U.S., and America would supply the granite pedestal base, to be designed by Richard Morris Hunt, and of course it would be colossal, just as Bartholdi always dreamed. If all went well, it could be ready for America’s 100th birthday in 1876.

The mutual bond was there, smoldering like fire, as France had played a key role in the American Revolution.

The wily diplomat Benjamin Franklin, admired by French aristocrats as the embodiment of New World enlightenment, had spent significant time in the courts of Paris encouraging the French government’s support for independence of the Thirteen Colonies, and the key military assistance of the young French general Lafayette cannot be understated.

Bartholdi’s project hit a nerve with many of his listeners. President Ulysses S. Grant even allocated the use of New York’s Bedloe’s Island, and there was considerable “buzz’’ about the mutual project. But to Bartholdi’s disappointment, the public fund-raising was slow in coming on the American side. The project would be delayed another decade, and by then

the insightful Laboulaye would be dead. It would take persistence; fund-raising woes slowed the effort for years, and the intervention of pioneering publishing mogul Joseph Pulitzer was eventually needed to secure the American contribution.

By 1875, back in Paris, Bartholdi directed a group of France’s best artisans and craftsmen and commenced to build what he designed to be the largest statue in modern times. It would be a complex, formidable task.

The surface of the statue would be copper. Specifically, 300 copper sheets; 450,000 pounds of hammered copper plates that amazingly were only 3/32 of an inch in thickness. Thus, the statue’s skin would be slightly thinner than two pennies, yet the massive surface would be equivalent to 3 million copper pennies. The thin copper plates were hammered around large wooden molds constructed in the shape of the statue, then riveted together on an iron framework by crews of skilled workers. This distinctive French artisan technique is known as repoussé—pushing from the reverse side. To support Bartholdi’s outer statue, acclaimed engineer Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, designed a strong iron skeleton.

Though the formal construction of the statue began from a small plaster mold only four and a half feet in height, the French crews scaled up the model numerous times to the colossus’ full height of a stunning 151 feet from the base to Lady Liberty’s torch. The statue’s impressive arm holding a symbolic torch was completed in 1876 and shown at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition. Her gigantic head and shoulders were finished in 1878 and exhibited at Paris’s

Universal Exposition. A tablet inscribed with the date 1776, in Roman numerals, is cradled in her left arm.

Bartholdi is said to have modeled the statue’s enigmatic face after that of his own mother, Charlotte. The gaze is timeless and penetrating. Its symbolism can penetrate the soul and from an artisan’s perspective it is unique, sternly different but somehow similar in the way the mysterious look of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa painting confronts viewers in its singularity. The seven dynamic spikes or rays of Lady Liberty’s crown universally represent the seven continents and seven seas of the earth.

Yet the towering figure still needed to be completed and assembled in its entirety, so the Bartholdi crew continued to labor in central Paris between 1881 and 1884. Several fascinating sepia photographs still exist, capturing the essence of a pivotal era as only vintage images frozen in time can, showing the sculptor and his craftsmen constructing the massive statue and clearly showing the herculean task in progress amid elaborate scaffolding, ladders, and equipment—culminating in the startling image of a fully constructed gigantic statue looming over a Paris street.

Now the colossal symbol of friendship and freedom had to cross the intimidating waters of the Atlantic Ocean to reach America’s shores. Bartholdi’s craftsmen went back to work, painstakingly dismantling their work bolt by bolt and copper sheet by copper sheet. They packed the 300-plus elements in 214 crates, and on May of 1885 the French navy frigate Isère transported Lady Liberty across the Atlantic, departing from Rouen. By June 17, after navigating hazardous waters, the Isère arrived in New York Harbor. Even then, America still had not raised all the needed funds to complete the statue’s pedestal; that’s when Joseph Pulitzer stepped in and initiated a campaign to publish the name of every donor—adult or schoolchild, no matter the amount—in his popular newspaper. The crates waited in storage.

When the time came, crews of workers, made up largely of immigrants, reassembled the giant statue and merged her with the concrete pedestal, bringing the combined presence of Lady Liberty to more than 300 feet in height.

Finally, on October 28, 1886, approximately 1 million New Yorkers defied damp, foggy weather to celebrate the official inauguration of Liberty Enlightening the World. Boisterous cheers accented a parade route through the city while boats and large crowds gathered to view the official unveiling ceremony, taking place on Bedloe’s Island, from across the harbor.

President Grover Cleveland sat in attendance as noted orator Senator William Evarts, a former secretary of state and tireless promoter of the project, waxed eloquent. A massive French tricolor flag covered the face of Lady Liberty while sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi stood nearby, his hand ready to pull the cord to unveil the face of freedom.

The visionary Lobulated, having died more than three years earlier, did not live to see the physical embodiment of his dream, but in choosing sculptor Bartholdi, he had picked a man with the stamina and determination to persevere. A man who had clung to their shared dream for a decade and a half.

Often overlooked are the broken shackles that lie at the feet of the Statue of Liberty. Yet perhaps more than any other element, they symbolize the powerful message that welcomes travelers as they encounter her towering presence.

In 1903 the words of a young poet, Emma Lazarus, wereinscribed into the pedestal: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the sonnet includes. In union with the visual message of the statue, Emma’s words combine to crystallize the power of democracy, the strength of freedom and compassion, in a world that is not always fair. A world in which the ugly threat of intolerance, persecution, and perceived superiority can crush the basic human rights of any individual, regardless of their race, religion, or background. All human beings deserve the right to dream, to be free of oppression, to honor their conscience, to let the human spirit soar in creativity and opportunity.

The young poet’s words and the overwhelming presence of Bartholdi’s statue in the harbor have come to mean something universal that transcends mere symbolism, bronze and paper, art and engineering.

In 1882 Lazarus, a vivacious thoughtful woman who was no stranger to American literary and social circles, was moved by the plight of Russian-Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution, and actively worked on their behalf.

The following year the writer Constance Harrison asked Emma to write a poem to raise funds toward the Liberty project’s completion. Copies of the resulting poem, “The New Colossus,” were sold as part of the campaign to fulfill the American commitment to building the statue’s pedestal. In 1886, by then ill with cancer, she rewrote her famous sonnet.

The following year, at only 37 years of age, Emma lost her battle with the disease, but her pen has not been silenced.

It was fitting that her timeless words defining the statue as the “Mother of Exiles” would inspire a world yearning for freedom. Many years earlier Emma’s great-great uncle Moses Mendes Seixas wrote to founding president George Washington describing a government which “to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Washington himself had written: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respected stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.”

Through the decades Bartholdi’s colossus, soon heralded as the Mother of Exiles, her lamp held high, has become a sacred symbol of liberty and hope for millions of immigrants. The gatekeeper to a cherished standard of democracy; a vision both as powerful and fragile as the hearts of men and women.

Many, fleeing persecution and/or seeking a new beginning, have openly wept as they caught site of a welcoming Lady Liberty upon approaching New York Harbor. They are awed not only by the immensity of the statue but by the immensity of what she represents.

Estelle Schwartz Belford was 5 years old in 1905, on a journey with her mother and siblings as immigrant passengers aboard a crowded ship traveling from Poland. As the vessel neared its destination, the passengers on deck could see towering Lady Liberty with welcoming torch raised high: “And then all of a sudden we heard a big commotion. . . . And everybody started yelling, they see the Lady, the Statue of Liberty. . . . Everybody started screaming and crying. You were kissing each other—people that you didn’t even know. . . . Everybody was so excited that you see America and you see the Lady.”

In 1958 Senator John F. Kennedy, himself a descendent of Irish immigrants, wrote in his timeless book A Nation of Immigrants: “Every ethnic minority, in seeking its own freedom, helped strengthen the fabric of liberty in American life. Similarly, every aspect of the American economy has profited from the contributions of immigrants.” “Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.” “We are a nation of immigrants.”

The soon-to-be president understood the strength of America lay in its diversity, its quilt of many colors and ethnicities, the multiple contributions of immigrants in a new shared homeland. Kennedy’s insightful book still speaks volumes to address the tension and headlines we see today. In 1960 certain factions of the country wanted to ban immigrants from Mexico; Kennedy stood up for Mexican immigrants and the idea of what the American dream really meant as a beacon in the world. He was keenly aware of previous efforts to ban the Irish and Chinese among others and realized that spirit has no part in the ideals represented by the Lady in the New York Harbor.

Religious freedom is a bedrock principle of the spirit of democracy. Cutting through the emptiness of political rhetoric, veiled prejudices, agendas, exclusivity and detachment, the words of Jesus have not changed: “I was a stranger and you did not welcome Me” (Matthew 25:43, NRSV).* In the example of the good Samaritan, we are taught to “love our neighbors as ourselves” (see Luke 10:25-37).

Today in this age of mass communications, numbing images, confusion, and misdirection, it is urgent that we look past the stereotypes. We must throw cold water on our faces, wake up, and realize that the bleeding children and shattered families that flee the horrific insanity, persecution, and misguided zeal that has plagued Syria, Iraq, Africa,

and the Middle East are flesh-and-blood people. They are dying, hurting, and are the “strangers and neighbors.”

The ideals of refuge and hope that define Lady Liberty are facing an acid test; many faith leaders are seeing what is at stake.

“I’ve stood with refugee families taking shelter in a makeshift tent village in Jordan less than a kilometer from the Syrian border. I’ve given aid to a Syrian father . . . who had been tortured and forced to flee with his family and afraid for his life. In each circumstance, I was proud as an American to know that we were seen by all of them as a place of refuge and hope. I was proud of a faith that inspires me and others to be kind to the stranger,” says United Church of Christ minister John Dorhauer. Elsewhere, refugee advocate and New York priest Tim Taugher, in reaction to proposed travel bans based on ethnicity and religion, spoke out about what the Statue of Liberty means to the core values of America: “The torch on the Statue of Liberty has been extinguished. . . . It’s been the source of hope, that light that stands there. ‘Give me your tired, the poor, the helpless’ and it seems like it is just being betrayed.”

It has been almost a century and a half since the sculptor Bartholdi crossed the Atlantic with a proposal to build a statue like none other. The words of refuge in Emma Lazarus’ epic poem still hang in the air. As do the words and vision of Édouard Laboulaye: “We will do a work that will have a far-reaching moral effect,” he had told Bartholdi.

Poignant words then and poignant words now that speak to the very character and soul of a nation.

Article Author: Ed Guthero

Ed Guthero has had a critically applauded career as a book and periodical designer, artist, and photographer, and a legacy ensured by years as a university lecturer. Here he shows another skill as an author. He writes from Boise, Idaho.