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David Clark
American Monuments: The Statue of Liberty
by David Clark

This week, David Clark will be our tour guide as we take a closer look at some of America’s greatest monuments. His series kicks off today with highlights from the history of “Liberty Enlightening the World,” known to the masses as the Statue of Liberty: her life as modern colossus, wartime pin-up centerfold, copper bosom to comfort the weary, hostage for the dissatisfied, and bane of Vigo.

The Conception and Birth of Our Stern Green Giant

statue-of-liberty.jpgAmbitions ran high towards the end of the 19th century, and French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was aching to build a modern colossus. The Colossus of Rhodes, archetype of Western colossi, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: a hundred-foot-high sculpture of the Greek sun-god Helios that loomed over the harbor of Rhodes in the 3rd century B.C. Many people agreed that Bartholdi’s modern colossus idea was a fine one — then as now, people liked anything big, and always found it gratifying to compare themselves to Ancient Greeks — but when it came time to shell out for materials, the rich and powerful would shrug, mutter something about other priorities, and shuffle away. (If Bartholdi hadn’t been frustrated at first, Lady Liberty might have been built in Egypt as a lighthouse for the Suez Canal, titled “Egypt Bringing Light to Asia.” As though they don’t have enough hulking monuments already.)

Nevertheless, circumstances eventually granted Bartholdi his chance. The French were planning to give an ostentatious gift to the United States in honor of the centennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and in celebration of our mutual affection for liberty and republics and that kind of thing. Bartholdi pitched the idea of a giant Lady Liberty — a symbol that tied modern republican ideals to classical Rome — and France deemed it worthy. She would be titled “Liberty Enlightening the World,” she would have skin of beaten copper, and she would bear the Torch of Enlightenment, a seven-pointed halo, an unwieldy toga, a strong and sober brow, and a tablet spelling out in Roman numerals the birthday of the USA (July IV, MDCCLXXVI).

Work began in Paris during the 1870s, but only an arm was ready for 1876, the true centennial year. This limb was exhibited at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia that year; then the head appeared two years later at another World’s Fair, in Paris. The full woman was finally ready for display in 1884, so they packed her into hundreds of crates, shipped her oversea, and rebuilt the Statue atop a star-shaped pedestal the US had set up for her (with much less enthusiasm and much more fundraising troubles than the French had), on a little island that had served in the past as a pesthouse, quarantine station, gallows, military prison, and dump, among other things. Then during a grand celebration in late 1886, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, and its face was dramatically unveiled from behind a French flag. At the time, she was the tallest structure in New York, at 305 feet. Rumor has it she looks like Bartholdi’s mother.

The American Colossus quickly turned green — which was inevitable, since copper will oxidize whenever given the chance. But nobody minded terribly except maybe Bartholdi, who had hoped the statue would be gilded, and in fact never felt satisfied that the Americans understood how fantastic his statue truly was, how symbolically potent, how politically inspiring, and so on.

Military Icon and Mother of Exiles

After the parades, high-flown rhetoric and fanfare of her unveiling, the Statue of Liberty endured periods of neglect and indifference. Some regarded her as little more than New York’s ornate, bedraggled lighthouse. The World Wars, however, bolstered public appreciation for Lady Liberty: she was the symbolic crusader against tyranny and feminine counterpart to Uncle Sam — the original Ms. America. A celebration of her 50th anniversary, presided over by President Roosevelt, stimulated further interest in the Statue as an icon of the American Way.

colossus.jpgThrough those years of growing favor, Lady Liberty acquired another meaning, as well — something less militant, more maternal. Due in part to her proximity to Ellis Island, the Statue came to represent America as a refuge for immigrants, and embodied for weary sea travelers the promise of freedom and prosperity. The Statue doesn’t quite have the eyes of a welcoming mother, but she’s at least humanoid, and unarmed, so that’s welcome enough. Early in the Statue’s life, the poet Emma Lazarus divined this significance and dubbed her “Mother of Exiles,” in a sonnet that is now world famous — but was little known until the 1930s. Inspired by an influx of harried Jews fleeing persecution in Russia, Lazarus wrote the celebrated lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breath free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Titled “The New Colossus” and engraved inside the pedestal’s entrance in 1903, Lazarus’ sonnet captures an interpretation of the Statue that later generations would come to embrace.

The Ultimate Hostage, the Ultimate Hippie

Since World War II, Americans have considered the Statue a vital national symbol, manifesting any number of powerful and sometimes clashing values. As a locus of American identity and the troubled American Dream, she became a potent object for political gestures — and in the 1970s these culminated in a series of occupations. Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) snuck into the Statue and barricaded her entrances in 1971. They flew the flag upside down from Liberty’s crown and remained inside for a VVAW.jpgcouple of days, demanding withdrawal from Vietnam, before they peacefully dispersed. The VVAW re-occupied the Statue after the war’s end to draw attention to the wretched treatment of American veterans. In 1977, a group of Iranians holed up inside the Statue to protest the Shah’s crimes in Iran, and America’s role in them. Then again that same year, Puerto Rican nationalists captured the Statue and draped a Puerto Rican flag from the crown.

There was a more passive attempt to appropriate the national icon in 1968, when a well-meaning hippie offered a colorful, colossus-sized string of beads that he’d custom-made for Lady Liberty. “They are lightweight, waterproof and made to go around her neck and extend to her waist,” he wrote; and by wearing them the Statue would “reflect the fashion of the forward-thinking people who are changing the attitudes in America today.” Sadly, the Park Service turned down the gift — or else we might have witnessed the spectacle of an angry President Nixon, emphatic enemy of the so-called counterculture, slashing and tearing the beads from Lady Liberty like one of Cinderella’s vicious step-sisters . . .

The Spectacle of Lady Liberty

Hollywood hasn’t shied from making a spectacle of the Statue and all its symbolic suggestions. She’s served as the scene for a number of climactic battles, from Hitchcock’s Saboteur to X-Men. She’s been demolished, toppled, beheaded, and burned by the many enemies of Life and Liberty — including aliens, sea beasts, the prehistoric reptile Rodan (enemy of Godzilla), Nuclear Man (who throws the Statue at Superman), Mother Nature (famous for mood swings), and the self-destructive human race — whom Charlton Heston dramatically damns to hell at the end of Planet of the Apes.

I say the Statue’s most profound and moving role (at least her most mobile) is in Ghostbusters II. Animated by reactive purple mood goo, the power of positive thinking, and some hot dance music, Lady Liberty struts through Manhattan and cheers up New Yorkers enough that their high spirits bring down Vigo the Carpathian, that dark sorcerer and savage baby-thief. Bartholdi himself could not have envisioned that his Statue would work such untold wonders.

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