The light of democracy — examining the Statue of Liberty

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 and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re on Liberty Island in the middle of New York Harbor, standing at the feet of the Statue of Liberty.

Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis: [0:12] Today, people think of Manhattan’s towering skyline, but in 1886, when she made her first appearance here, there was nothing as tall as Lady Liberty with her torch held high.

Dr. Zucker: [0:21] The statue was a gift from the Republic of France to the United States in honor of the friendship between the two countries, but also in recognition of both countries’ commitment to democracy.

[0:32] The idea of this gift, of this massive sculpture, had originated with a Frenchman who was a historian of American history. He was a republican even at the end of the reign of Napoleon III.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [0:44] He was also the president of the French anti-slavery league, and so a symbol that represented a nation that valued liberty and freedom and had ended slavery was something that Laboulaye saw as a way forward for France. The United States was a model.

[0:58] This is the biggest statue the United States has, this structure, which probably most people would assume was financed by a state because it’s so big, but was not. The whole point was that this was financed by the people of France and then by the people of America.

[1:12] The French set out to raise 400,000 francs for the statue, while the United States citizens were meant to raise the money, about a quarter of a million dollars, to pay for the base.

Dr. Zucker: [1:22] Much of the base was supported by members of the Union League club, but they came up about $100,000 short. By this time, the sculpture had been completed and was laying in pieces in France waiting for the pedestal to be completed.

[1:35] At that point, Joseph Pulitzer, the owner of a newspaper called “The World” reached out to his readership and put forward this project as an expression not of New York’s elites but of the common man.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [1:46] Pulitzer was the master of PR. He raised $100,000 in less than six months, and most of those donations were less than a dollar. That tells you a lot about how Americans, many of whom would have been immigrants, felt about their ideals and ideologies.

Dr. Zucker: [2:00] How does one take an abstract idea and represent it physically? Bartholdi was the sculptor and is responsible for not only selecting the site but also for the overall artistic vision. Richard Morris Hunt was hired to produce the pedestal, and he draws on ancient architectural vocabulary.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [2:18] He references what was one of the most well-known monuments from antiquity, the Pharos or Lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt, which was this Greek city, originally, but incorporated many aspects of both Greek and Egyptian architecture. We can really see that in this building.

Dr. Zucker: [2:35] The pedestal was praised in its own day for having a strong design in its own right but also not being so grand as to overshadow the sculpture above it.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [2:44] They work very well together. This is a local Connecticut granite, it’s rusticated. There are galleries on each side that have a colonnade that you can go inside that have spectacular views of the harbor.

Dr. Zucker: [2:55] I love the gently domed roundels that surround the lower part of the pediment. There are 40 of them, and that was one for each state back in 1886.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [3:04] It’s a reminder of the 100th-year anniversary of the United States, so it’s a symbolic building in that way as well.

Dr. Zucker: [3:10] Similarly, on the sculpture itself, the rays of the crown are seven. A reference to the seven seas and the seven continents, and the idea of liberty spreading across the world.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [3:20] When this was dedicated, a million people reportedly came out to see it. What did that one million people, and the immigrants, when they sailed through the Narrows, what did they see?

Dr. Zucker: [3:29] They saw a personification of an idea. They saw a figure informed by the great tradition of ancient Greece, the inventors of the ideals of democracy. The figure is heavily draped so that her body is almost completely lost below it. We can see a finer undergarment and then big, broad fields of copper cladding.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [3:48] Our eyes are drawn up to her face, to the torch. What is also remarkable is her tablet. It just says, very simply, “July 4th, 1776,” in Roman numerals.

Dr. Zucker: [3:58] Those symbols, the symbol of the draped woman holding a torch, this can be read in multiple ways. Bartholdi was at pains to express that this was not an incendiary torch, but rather, this was a torch of enlightenment. And what a face. Her look is so determined. It’s stoic, it is unwavering.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [4:16] She looks like she has accepted that this is her duty. She needs to show the world what the ideals of liberty really mean.

Dr. Zucker: [4:23] She gently strides forward, matching the task at hand as if she’s going to bring liberty from the United States to the rest of the world. In fact, this was produced just as France was moving to the Third Republic.

[4:35] It’s windy out here as we stand at the foot of the statue, and it’s a reminder of the engineering brilliance that went into the design of this sculpture. This is made out of very thin sheets of copper that have to withstand enormous pressure from high winds, even hurricanes.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [4:50] It is made of repoussé work.

Dr. Zucker: [4:52] That means that it was hammered from the back. In this case, in pieces against wooden molds.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [4:57] But then you have another problem. If you figured out how to build it, how does it stay up?

Dr. Zucker: [5:02] The credit here really has to go to Gustave Eiffel, the designer and owner of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [5:07] His other masterpiece is right here in Manhattan’s harbor.

Dr. Zucker: [5:11] But it’s hidden underneath Bartholdi’s beautiful copper skin. Within is a brilliant mechanism to hold every single sheet of copper independently.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [5:21] There are four big, thick, steel pylons, and coming off of there is this spider web of steel connecting to every single piece. This intricate design that is incredibly light.

Dr. Zucker: [5:33] None of those steel posts can touch the copper, because if they did, it would set up a kind of galvanic electric current that would corrode the sculpture, so each post has to be insulated from the copper itself.

[5:44] The Statue of Liberty, which we credit to Bartholdi, is actually very much a communal work. It’s a work of two nations, but it’s also the work of the brilliant architect of the pedestal and an equally brilliant engineer.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [5:55] Many different people working together to achieve a remarkable result.

[5:59] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”Bartholdi”]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The light of democracy — examining the Statue of Liberty," in Smarthistory, April 25, 2018, accessed July 19, 2024,