Creating Lady Liberty: Bartholdi’s Exploratory Visit to America
On October 28, 1886, a spectacular unveiling ceremony capped the Statue of Liberty’s twenty-one year journey from conception to completion. The idea for a monument to liberty had lingered as a vague notion for its first six years, but in 1871 the sculptor’s visit to the United States set the project on its course. The sculptor’s four-month-long tour offers insight into the remarkable history behind the statue’s creation and the 125th Anniversary we celebrate this year.
In June 1871, after a twelve-day voyage at sea, the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi cast his eyes on New York Harbor and the island he quickly recognized as a superb site for the statue he was forming in his mind. Bartholdi had come to the United States to make an exploratory visit. He had been offered a commission in France to design a statue for America—on the condition that a gift of this kind would be well received. It was left to him, Bartholdi realized, to create enthusiasm in the United States for the idea of a figural monument to liberty. At the same time, he would become acquainted with this country, which he had never before visited and for which he dreamed of creating an unprecedented gift.
Having learned that the island nestled between New York and New Jersey belonged to the federal government, Bartholdi paid a visit to the president of the U.S., Ulysses S. Grant, at his summer cottage. The prospect of a liberty statue raised on national soil apparently appealed to Grant. He assured Bartholdi that, if the project moved forward, he would do what he could to designate Bedloe’s Island (since renamed Liberty Island) for the purpose. Indeed, six years later, on his last day in office, Grant signed a resolution designating an island site for the anticipated gift from the people of France.
Clearly Bartholdi had friends in the United States who opened doors for him. Or, rather, the statue’s primary sponsor in France, Édouard Laboulaye, had friends. Laboulaye had supported Grant’s election, as he had supported Abraham Lincoln’s before him. Although he had never visited, he was cherished as a friend of America whose stirring writings were translated and distributed by newspaper publishers, election committees, and even the U.S. minister in Paris, who described him as “one of the most distinguished men in France.”1 Habitually clad in a black frock coat buttoned to the neck, Laboulaye was not at first glance the likeliest man to attract a following. But he had a cause—individual liberty—which he felt passionately about, and his enthusiasm was infectious. Trained in the law, the scope of his interest in individual rights was broad; military prisoners, women in ancient Rome, people living under authoritarian rule. He was an active abolitionist, hoping to see slavery end in the United States and around the world. For his own country his ambition was practical and immediate: to end the centuries-old rule by either monarchy or empire. Laboulaye longed to help usher in a republic in France, and where better to look for an example of government founded on principles of individual rights, he argued, than the United States.
In 1849 Laboulaye initiated the first lectures on the history and institutions of the United States at the Collège de France in Paris’s Latin quarter. An ardent admirer of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, among other founding Americans, Laboulaye assumed that the people of the United States, in turn, cherished memories of the role that the Marquis de Lafayette and the French people had played in the nation’s founding. The government of France had provided considerable assistance—ships, soldiers, war materiel, and funds—during the American War for Independence. Lafayette symbolized the bond that had been established between the two peoples; he was their “connecting link.”2
Over the following decade Laboulaye wrote prodigiously about the United States, and when the American Civil War began he tirelessly advocated the preservation of the Union and the protection of liberties. Then, in 1865, shortly after the conclusion of the war, he conceived the idea for a monument to liberty.
He first voiced his thoughts during a dinner party at his home. It would be entirely fitting, he suggested, for the people of France and the people of the United States, in celebrating a tradition of friendship dating back to the American Revolution, to raise a monument together. Dinner guest Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi responded to this idea without hesitation. It would be my privilege, he announced, to design a statue.
And so, after years of both preparation and waiting for an opportunity, Bartholdi arrived in New York in 1871. It was only natural that his first contacts were in the French community and that he befriended a French-speaking artist working in New York, John La Farge. La Farge was both a painter and an innovator in stained glass. Inviting Bartholdi to his family home in Newport, Rhode Island, he introduced Bartholdi to friends and, during Bartholdi’s second trip to the United States, offered his home as the venue for Bartholdi’s wedding. It was also in the La Farge home that Bartholdi met the man who would design the pedestal for the liberty statue. At the time, neither Bartholdi nor Richard Morris Hunt suspected that their future work would bring them together again. Hunt, brother of the painter William Morris Hunt, spoke French and had studied in Paris at the prestigious École des Beaux Arts. He started his own architecture firm in New York and acquired a reputation as the learned “dean of the profession.”3
By 1871, when he and Bartholdi met, Hunt’s office was busy with commissions for building designs. The surge of public monument construction in the years following the Civil War brought him additional work. Besides Civil War monuments, Hunt’s designs included three important monuments commemorating the alliance of the French and American forces during the American War for Independence: the Yorktown Monument; the pedestal for a statue of Lafayette for the University of Vermont; and the pedestal for a statue of George Washington, located at the very spot in lower Manhattan where he took the oath of office as the first president of the United States. When the time came to select an architect in America to design the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, Hunt’s qualifications were impeccable. From 1881 to 1884, as funds for the pedestal were slowly raised in America, Hunt explored multiple schemes before finally arriving at the design for the monumental 89-foot-tall pedestal we see today.
From New York, Bartholdi traveled to Washington D.C., reaching the capital in time for the Fourth of July. There he met with a particular friend of Édouard Laboulaye, the senator Charles Sumner. Sumner was a senior member of the Senate, well known and highly respected. He had met Laboulaye in Paris in the 1850s while convalescing from an appalling physical assault in the Senate chamber. An outspoken abolitionist, Sumner had delivered a scathing speech in the Senate, to which a young representative of South Carolina, Preston Brooks, took personal offense. A few days later, as he worked at his desk in the quiet Senate chamber, Sumner was caught unawares by the Congressman’s approach. Beaten repeatedly with the hard cane that Brooks carried, Sumner suffered damage to his back and head and was forced to excuse himself from the duties of his senate seat—which was held open for him by Massachusetts—for over three years. Laboulaye, who already favored abolition, was dismayed by the stories he heard from Sumner. He became more active supporting both abolition and politicians, such as Lincoln, who represented this position, and in the 1860s he served as president of the French Emancipation Committee for several years.
Sumner enthusiastically welcomed Bartholdi to the capital. He was “sympathetic” with Bartholdi’s proposal for a liberty statue, Bartholdi recorded in his journal, and he introduced the sculptor to people who might provide assistance in the complex task of transforming the idea into reality.4 Despite this encouragement, however, what struck Bartholdi, first during his stay in New York and now in Washington, D.C., was the practical inclination of Americans. Especially now, as they struggled to emerge from the trauma of the Civil War, their interest was not easily held by talk of a monument to an idea. Instead, war heroes and specific events captured their attention. The meaning of a monument to liberty, Bartholdi realized, was better understood when he emphasized its connection to the nation’s birth. A liberty monument would be especially meaningful if they—the French and the Americans—could complete it in time for the upcoming centennial celebration of 1876.
Fortuitously, Bartholdi was invited to Philadelphia, the intended setting for the Centennial Exhibition, by a friend of Sumner’s, the newspaper publisher John Forney. Well-connected in Philadelphia as well as Washington D.C., Forney became one of the statue’s foremost supporters. As the Centennial’s Commissioner to Europe, he ensured that the arm and torch of the statue—the only section actually complete by 1876—was on display, in addition to several other pieces of Bartholdi’s artwork. And, when Laboulaye urged members of the Union League Club, a club initiated to support Abraham Lincoln and the Union, to establish a committee to prepare the island site for the arrival of the statue, Forney was one of the American Committee’s founding members. The American Committee would take full responsibility for the monument on this side of the Atlantic. It would commission Richard Morris Hunt to design a suitable pedestal for the statue, hire contractors to construct a massive concrete foundation along with the pedestal, another crew to piece together the statue and its metal support structure—which were first erected in Paris, then disassembled and shipped over in 210 large wooden crates—and organize a grand unveiling ceremony.
In the nineteenth century, the Fourth of July was a time for celebrating the Declaration of Independence in conjunction with the U.S. Constitution. These documents complemented each other in forming the sprirt and structure of the nation; and in Philadelphia one is readily reminded of their shared role in the origin of the country. A primary attraction—with good reason—is Independence Hall. Originally the Pennsylvania State House, it was here that the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Eleven years later, it was here again, in the same room at Independence Hall, that members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 spent a long summer debating and drafting a Constitution for the United States. As the delegates added their signatures to the document, James Madison recorded a remark by Benjamin Franklin that Édouard Laboulaye relished. Pointing to the decoration on the back of George Washington’s chair, an ornate image of the sun, Franklin mused that painters “had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun.”5 He had pondered the image over the last several months, wondering what it foretold. Would their long debate lead to a successful conclusion? Now, as delegates signed the Constitution that bound together the states, he felt certain that the sun was rising, not setting. They were participants in the nation’s beginning.
Watching the sunrise over New York Harbor may have reinforced this image in Bartholdi’s mind. He was moved by the spectacular sunrise he witnessed in the bay and once commented that Bedloe’s Island inspired the statue. In any case, it was shortly after his visit to Philadelphia, while relaxing for a few days at the home of John La Farge, that Bartholdi selected a sunburst to crown his liberty figure.
The strong impressions formed during his week’s stay in Philadelphia may also have influenced two other design elements. First, the traditional tablet of the law cradled in the statue’s left arm, which bears the date July 4, 1776, and effectively represents both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence; second, the broken chain under the statue’s left foot.
The Union League Club of Philadelphia, a private club that welcomed Bartholdi as a guest of John Forney, housed a special painting of Abraham Lincoln. Commissioned by several members of the club in 1863, the painter Edward Dalton Marchant portrayed Lincoln seated at a table, having just signed the Emancipation Proclamation. With Lincoln’s reelection campaign approaching, an engraving of the painting was completed, reproduced, and distributed, to popularize a characterization of the president as the Great Emancipator. A number of symbolic elements surround Lincoln, among them a statue labeled “Liberty.” Affirming the connection between liberty and emancipation, Liberty tramples on the broken chain of slavery.
This painting may have seemed quite familiar to Bartholdi. Laboulaye had supported Lincoln’s reelection by writing articles for publication in the United States, and it is likely that one of the groups he assisted, such as the Union Congressional Committee, sent him a copy of the engraving and that he showed it to Bartholdi. When Bartholdi returned to the home of La Farge for a few days in early August, following his visit to Philadelphia, he worked on a clay model of his liberty figure. Included in this model was a broken chain, trampled underfoot.
Ever since the statue was unveiled in New York Harbor in 1886 interpretations of the broken chain have, more often than not, denied any connection between the chain and slavery. Proponents of this position argue that, consistent with the reference to the Declaration of Independence, the chain under Lady Liberty’s foot represents the liberty of the colonists gained during the American Revolution; that is, political freedom from tyranny and oppression. Bartholdi did not offer any instruction on how to interpret the statue’s individual features. But if the abolition of slavery occurs to us today when we view the broken chain, it certainly occurred to him six years after the end of the Civil War. In the broken chain of the Great Emancipator painting, Bartholdi may have recognized a means of honoring Lincoln while representing emancipation.
In two months’ time Bartholdi had made a number of good contacts and developed a few exciting ideas for his statue. But before returning to France, he wanted to follow up with the people he had met, as well as meet a few others. By the beginning of August, however, temperatures on the east coast were sweltering, Congress was in recess, and many people were on vacation. This timing had not been planned on his part. He had simply left France at the end of the Franco–Prussian War of 1870-1871. He had served in the army from September 1870 through May 1871, when the war’s end left France free of Emperor Napoleon III, who had been captured and dethroned, but with uncertain prospects for the new government. A new Republic had been declared, yet the war’s conclusion was a bitter one for Bartholdi on account of the loss of the region of his birth, where his mother still lived, to Germany. Faced with this loss of liberty and self-determination, his mind turned to the contemplated liberty statue he had discussed with Laboulaye and his associates for nearly six years. All of a sudden this monument to liberty had become imbued with deep personal meaning. He longed for the self-governance of Alsace, free of its occupiers. His return to Paris, and his damaged home and studio, at the end of May 1871 brought no relief. Anxious for a respite from the turmoil and disappointments of the war, he had set out for the United States without any thought to the summer holidays.
So, in the middle of the summer, he made a wise decision. After having dedicated his time on the east coast to meeting with people to discuss the idea of a statue, he set off to see the country. It was an experience that touched his spirit. It may be an overstatement to say that he fell in love with the country, but he was mesmerized by the scale and the natural beauty of the land he traveled through; it notably lifted his soul and colored his imagination. Bartholdi spent five weeks journeying west, via Niagara Falls and Chicago, to California and back to the east coast. The falls satisfied “every imagined expectation,” he recorded in his journal, and in the City of Chicago, which seemed “more American than all the others—streets full of life,” he viewed a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln.6 As his train took him west from Chicago he observed an abundance of wildlife—one herd of a thousand buffalo, he estimated—the plains of the Midwest, high plateaus, mountains and valleys, and scenes like “something out of a fairy tale.”7 Already on the east coast he had been struck by the largeness of even the most common things, even the petit pois [peas]. What he saw as he traveled across the country reinforced this impression, which culminated in a moonlit evening stroll among the “colossal redwood trees” in California.8 Gazing at the redwoods must have triggered a sense of the scale appropriate for his liberty statue, for he made a sketch of the scene for Laboulaye. It had become clear to him, in a personal more than an abstract manner, that the scale of America is large. The statue could be, as well.
Heading back east on the train, Bartholdi made a stop in Saint Louis, where he was pleased to discover a Lafayette Park, and met a friend of Charles Sumner, Carl Schurz. Schurz encouraged Bartholdi, and in later years he served on a committee organizing events to raise funds for a pedestal for the statue. Schurz may have played an even more influential role in fundraising by sparking fellow newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer’s interest in the fate of the statue. In March 1885, when the American Committee nearly gave up all hope of raising the funds needed to prepare the island site, construct a foundation and pedestal, and erect the statue, which, packed in crates in France, would soon be loaded on a ship set for Bedloe’s Island, Pulitzer breathed life back into the project. This is the people’s statue, he exclaimed. “We must raise the money!” he cajoled his readers in the World newspaper, for this “gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America.”9 Pulitzer’s personal efforts to create excitement in the statue brought about astonishing results and within five months the American Committee had received adequate funds to confidently move forward with the work.
During his exploratory trip in 1871 Bartholdi could not foresee the events of the next fifteen years: Laboulaye and the Franco-American Union’s launch of what would become a five-year-long fundraising campaign in France, the transformation of his 4-foot model into a 151-foot statue, Gustave Eiffel’s construction of an innovative tall truss tower to support the sculptural form (and which anticipated the Eiffel Tower structure, completed only a few years later), Richard Morris Hunt’s design for a monumental pedestal, a long fundraising drive in the United States and the preparation of Bedloe’s Island, including the construction of the pedestal, the unpacking of the 210 crates from France that contained pieces of the truss tower and the copper statue, and, finally, the erecting of the statue. If Bartholdi had known, in the summer of 1871, that the statue would not be completed until 1886, he may never have pursued the project. In all likelihood, the idea for a monument to liberty would have been set aside and eventually forgotten.
But, then again, Bartholdi was not naive about the task that lay ahead. Shortly after arriving in the United States he wrote to his mother, with a touch of disappointment, that realizing the idea for a liberty statue “is sure to be a long and laborious process.”10 Yet having spent the summer months meeting Americans, visiting the big cities of the East and historical Revolution-era sites, hearing about the Civil War and the Union’s struggles to establish its new footing, and experiencing the vastness of the country filled him with a sense of optimism, one that he would convey in his design for a statue. His ambition as a sculptor motivated him to pursue the opportunity of this commission. However, the real driving force, the one that made it possible for him to dedicate the next fifteen years of his life—supported by numerous others, from designers and contractors to politicians and enthusiastic fundraisers—was the glimpse he had of the great “moral value” of the monument he was shaping in his mind.11 Indeed, the Statue of Liberty is a tremendous work of art and architecture, unprecedented in scale and in setting. We appreciate her majestic presence in New York Harbor, and we can study the details of her design. But it is the statue’s reflection of aspirations of freedom, self-determination, individual dignity, and equitable rule of law, underlain by a deep sense of optimism, that make her truly grand. Bartholdi declined to describe the design elements he chose or to interpret the work of art for us. Instead, he merely offered this thought: the Statue of Liberty, he wrote, is as “grand as the idea it embodies.”12
1. Elihu B. Washburne, Recollections of a Minister to France, 1869–1877 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889), 2:319.
2. “Gratitude to Lafayette,” in U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Register of Debates in Congress. 18th Cong., 2nd sess., December 21, 1824.
3. Louis H. Sullivan, The Autobiography of an Idea (New York: Dover, 1956), 190.
4. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, Journal, July 5, 1871, trans. Rodman Gilder, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
5. Benjamin Franklin, in James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, Reported by James Madison (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, ), 659.
6. Bartholdi, Journal, August 11, 1871; Bartholdi, Journal, August 14, 1871.
7. Bartholdi to Charlotte Bartholdi, August 22, 1871, trans. Rodman Gilder, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
8. Bartholdi, Journal, August 31, 1871.
9. “An Appeal,” New York World, March 16, 1885.
10. Bartholdi to Charlotte Bartholdi, July 2, 1871, trans. Rodman Gilder, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
11. Bartholdi to Édouard Laboulaye, July 15, 1871, in Christian Blanchet and Bertrand Dard, The Statue of Liberty: The First Hundred Years, trans. Bernard A. Weisberger (New York: American Heritage, 1985), 184n6.
12. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World, trans. Allen Thorndike Rice (New York: North American Review, 1885), 19.