• Comment

Seaborn: The story behind the Statue of Liberty

Posted: July 26, 2017 - 2:36am

"It would be a ... disgrace to New York City and the American Republic to have France send us this splendid gift - without our having provided - a landing place for it."

- Joseph Pulitzer

^

With current Franco-American relations at less than an all-time high, maybe it's time to revisit the strongest tie that binds our two nations, and tell the rest of the Statue of Liberty story. The more I indulge in historical research, the more discrepancies I find in multiple accounts of the same event, and the more I understand why. There is so much to tell, and so little time or space to tell the whole story. This may explain why our history books left out some details about the gift of the Statue of Liberty from France to the U.S. nearly 135 years ago.

Chalk it up to a 19th-century counterpart of political correctness, but few historians were willing to mention that the motivation behind France's "gift" may not have been sheer generosity, as we have been led to believe. Yes, the statue was presented to commemorate the centennial of our victory in the War of Independence, but the statue was as much to honor the French forces who fought alongside the Americans as it was to honor this country alone.

That France fought for American independence was considered more of a move against Britain, who had defeated them in the seven-year-war for land in the New World, than a desire to help us.

At a ceremony in Paris on July 4, 1884, the U.S. Ambassador to France thanked the French people for their gigantic gift, even though few Americans wanted the statue and Congress had soundly turned down the French request for a $300,000 pedestal to place under it. "Not one cent of federal money for a pedestal," they said, and, following a seven-year fundraising drive, private donors had raised less than half the required amount.
Nevertheless, 16 days after the ceremony in Paris, American workmen began building the 89-foot pedestal, but completed only the first 15 feet before money ran out. As work stopped in this country, French workmen were packing sections of the completed statue into 214 crates for shipment to America.

The enormous statue, internationally revered today as the symbol of liberty, might never have stood upright were it not for the Hungarian-born, intensely patriotic American newspaper editor Joseph Pulitzer. Exasperated with Congress and wealthy Americans for shunning "one of the greatest gifts one nation ever offered to another," Pulitzer decided to appeal to ordinary Americans for help. On March 16, 1885, he made his request on the front page of his newspaper, The New York World. Noting that the statue was paid for by the working people of France, he challenged Americans to do the same for the pedestal.

The response was overwhelming. Approximately 121,000 people, including children, contributed $101,091 to the pedestal fund. Only three people contributed more than $100; most gave less than $1. Work resumed in November and ended the following April. Six months later the reassembled statue, constructed and financed by the people of France, was ready for unveiling atop its giant pedestal, constructed and financed by the people of the U.S.

The U.S. and France have been on-again, off-again friends for more than three centuries. Tensions surrounding a statue or a war have been interspersed with gratitude and alliance by both sides. For the sake of greater tensions than those between two rival nations, let's pray today's cooled affections will dissipate as quickly as they did one moment in October 1886, when thousands of Americans and a few boatloads of Frenchmen cheered the strongest tie that binds any two nations together, liberty for "the huddled masses yearning to breathe free" around the world.

(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer and author of the book As Long as the Rivers Run: Highlights from Columbia County's Past. E-mail comments to seabara@aol.com.)

 

  • Comment