Light of democracy, the Statue of Liberty

A gift from France welcomed generations of immigrants

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor, installed 1886, conceived by Édouard Laboulaye, sculpture designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, engineered by Gustave Eiffel, pedestal designed by Richard Morris Hunt. Speakers: Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis and Dr. Steven Zucker

Key points

  • The idea for the Statue of Liberty originated with Édouard Laboulaye, a historian of American history and advocate for French democracy. Laboulaye conceived of a symbol that represented a nation that valued liberty and freedom, prompted by the abolition of slavery in the United States after the Civil War. The sculpture was commissioned in 1876, the centennial year of the United States.
  • The statue, designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, was financed by the people of France and America, rather than by governments. Sections of the statue were exhibited at World’s Fairs to raise money. The French raised 400,000 francs for the sculpture, and the Americans needed to raise around 250,000 dollars for the pedestal.
  • The final pedestal funds were raised in less than six months, mainly from donations of less than a dollar. The people who donated — many of them poor, many of them immigrants — showed their belief in American ideals and ideologies.
  • The sculpture takes an abstract idea — liberty — and personifies it in the tradition of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. The seven spikes of her crown reference the seven seas and seven continents, symbolizing the idea of liberty spreading throughout the world. She holds a tablet that holds the date July 4, 1776 written in Roman numerals.
  • Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel Tower, engineered the interior structure of the statue so that it could survive the heavy winds it is subjected to. The thin copper sheets are supported inside by a system of four pylons that have a web of supports connected to them that independently stabilize each copper sheet.

Go deeper

Official website from the National Parks Service

Statue of Liberty: Topics in Chronicling America at the Library of Congress

Primary sources on historical immigration from the Library of Congress

Newspaper and periodical resources from the Library of Congress

Rediscovering An Ornate Cast Of Cast-Iron Buildings (New York Times)

Biography of Bartholdi from the National Gallery of Art

A “committee model” replica of the Statue of Liberty at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

More to think about

The design of the Statue of Liberty and its pedestal relies on references to ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art. Do you think that the average person who contributed to Joseph Pulitzer’s fundraising campaign understood those artistic references? If not, why do you think they used those references anyway?


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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More Smarthistory images…

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.