The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World, to give the colossus its full name, is one of THE icons of the United States, along with the Washington Monument, Capitol Building, Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Rushmore.
Standing on Liberty Island in New York Harbour, the 93-metre statue of a robed woman represents the Roman goddess of freedom, Libertas. Holding a torch in her right hand above her crowned head, she was assembled in the late 19th century, and was the first thing millions of immigrants saw as they sailed to Ellis Island in the hope of finding a new life in the US. In her left hand is a tablet inscribed with the date, in Roman numerals, of 4 July 1776, the day that the Declaration of Independence was adopted, and under her feet is a broken chain in commemoration of the abolition of slavery at the end of the American Civil War.
It was at the same time as the war was ending that a Frenchman – poet and anti-slavery activist Edouard de Laboulaye – first proposed a statue, both as a celebration of the US remaining united with the North’s victory in the war and as an act of friendship between the America and France, who had been allies in the American War of Independence almost a century earlier.
Sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi began construction on the statue in the 1870s in Paris, funding the project with money raised in both the US and France. Considering how much US history is symbolised in the statue, it may seem incongruous to say that not every aspect of Lady Liberty’s appearance was designed with its intended destination in mind. If events had gone differently, she may have been holding her torch over Egypt.
A few years earlier, Bartholdi had met with the Khedive of Egypt, Isma’il Pasha, to discuss his plan for a giant sculpture inspired by the magnificent statues from ancient Egypt and the legends of the Colossus of Rhodes. It would stand at Port Said at the entrance of the Suez Canal, which was still under construction itself, and represent a peasant woman wearing loose robes and, you may be able to guess, holding a torch above her head.
The work, entitled ‘Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia’, would even stand on a pedestal, much like the eventual design for the Statue of Liberty. The Khedive turned down this proposal, saying that it would be too expensive, and Bartholdi still clung to the hope of using that design. His opportunity came quickly as he embarked on a trip to the US to make progress with his friend Laboulaye’s idea. Beginning with elements recycled from the failed Suez Canal project, Bartholdi refined and adapted the design to represent American liberty until he came to the copper colossus seen today.
His work was completed by 1885, before the Statue of Liberty was disassembled, shipped to New York and reassembled on top of the stone pedestal constructed by the Americans. On 28 October 1886, President Grover Cleveland led the dedication ceremony, aware of the statue’s instant significance to the country as he said: “We will not forget that Liberty has here made her home.”
This content was commissioned for BBC History Revealed and first published by HistoryExtra in 2021