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The Statue of Liberty Was Originally Intended to Celebrate the End of American Slavery

We spoke with Ed Berenson, author of The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story, about the little-known origins of the iconic statue in New York Harbor.
statue of liberty
Photo by Don Ramey Logan via Wikimedai Commons

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The Statue of Liberty is one of America's most famous icons, with a famous origin story: It was a gift from France, given to the United States around the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. Many people today think the purpose of 305-foot statue, which is planted on Liberty Island in the New York Harbor, is to welcome incoming immigrants. This is bolstered by the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on its pedestal, which reads," Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…"


However, according to Ed Berenson, a New York University professor and author of The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story, there's a lot more to the origin of the Statue of Liberty that speaks to America's original sin. In the early stages of its creation, the initial intent for the building of the statue was to celebrate the emancipation of enslaved African Americans after the Civil War.

Bartholdi's design patent

Edouard de Laboulaye, French abolitionist and president of the French Anti-Slavery Society, is the undisputed "Father of the Statue of Liberty." After the United States's Civil War, Laboulaye conceived the idea of a gift to the United States to memorialize President Abraham Lincoln and celebrate the end of slavery. He enlisted sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who took an unused design he had created for a lighthouse near the Suez Canal and turned it into a monument for America. In the 20 years it took between the conception and the statue's dedication in 1886, as part of the effort to re-unify the country after the Civil War, the statue grew to take on the centennial symbolism and broader meaning it has today.

In an ironic twist, the Statue of Liberty has became a painful symbol of the rights and freedoms denied to the people whose liberation it was initially supposed to celebrate. Legendary black historian and civil rights activist WEB Du Bois wrote in his autobiography that when he sailed past Lady Liberty on a trip returning home from Europe, he had a hard time feeling the hope that inspired so many European immigrants because as a black man, he didn't have access to the freedoms she promised. And with so many people today asking out loud whether or not black lives actually matter, it's clear that the liberty celebrated by the statue continues to evade African Americans, even though their emancipation was a catalyst for the statue's creation.


I called up Ed Berenson, who's also the director of the French Institute at NYU, to talk about the Statue of Liberty's origins and why he thinks this history has been forgotten or ignored and what that says about America today.

VICE: How did Laboulaye conceive of the Statue of Liberty?
Ed Berenson: During his time, Laboulaye was the leading French expert and admirer of the United States. He felt more sympathetic to the American version of liberty than the one that came out of the French Revolution, which he thought was too radical and violent. And he wasn't blind to slavery, because Laboulaye was also the head of France's abolition society. So Laboulaye thought that the victory of the North in the Civil War was a great development because it abolished slavery once and for all.

The tragedy was that the architect of that abolition, Lincoln, had to sacrifice his life. And so when these two things happened—the assassination of Lincoln and the end of the Civil War—Laboulaye came up with the idea of giving the United States a major gift that would commemorate Lincoln and recognize the abolition of slavery.

Laboulaye was also an opponent of his own government, which he thought was very undemocratic. One of his objectives was to criticize his own government, but to do it in a way that wouldn't get him into trouble. So he was able to kill all kinds of birds with one stone. He was able to say, "What a great thing the abolition of slavery was." "What a wonderful thing American liberty is." And then, by implication, "What a terrible thing the lack of liberty in France is."


What happened next?
Laboulaye got together with a group of people who included Bartholdi and said, "Let's kind of think together about what form this gift should take." In June 1865, they all met at Laboulaye's house near Versailles. Because Laboulaye invited Bartholdi, it was pretty clear that Laboulaye had in mind some kind of sculpture.

Bartholdi got involved in other projects, and the main one was the Egyptian project at the Suez Canal. That project fell through because the Egyptian Khedive went bankrupt. So Bartholdi got the idea, I'm going to repurpose this Egyptian project and make it into the great American gift. And by this point, it's close to 1870, so that means we're just six years from the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Laoublaye and Bartholdi got the idea to shift from the original goal—which was to commemorate the abolition of slavery and the martyrdom of Lincoln—and move toward commemorating the 100th anniversary of American liberty.

In the summer of 1871, Bartholdi traveled to the United States. He brought with him some sketches of a new statue that were loosely based on the Egyptian sketches, but were more Greco-Roman since that was more appropriate for a Western country like the United States. And he had a couple of small clay models that he put together. Those early statues still had the original idea, because there were broken chains in the hands that symbolized the abolition of slavery. And as those sketches evolved, the chains shrunk until all that's left of them is what we see today, which is a chain under the Statue of Liberty's foot. So you get a morphing of the Statue of Liberty from mainly being about the abolition of slavery to now being more generally about American liberty.


When the statue was dedicated in 1886, did any of the original abolitionist symbolism remain?
No. It fell away party because a lot of time had passed. Now we're in 1886—more than 20 years after the end of the Civil War—but also it has to do with the way the Reconstruction period turned out. It's not likely that [Laboulaye] stopped being glad that slavery was abolished, but the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in Reconstruction troubled him.

And so for that reason, the abolition imagery really was vastly reduced in importance, and nobody talked about it anymore. What was happening by the middle of the 1880s is that the United States was trying to forget about the Civil War. It was trying to reunify, and that reunification took place at the expense of African Americans. There was a tacit understanding that the United States would bring the South back in by the rest of the country closing their eyes to Jim Crow laws.

But when you forget about the Civil War in order for the country to come back together, you forget about the terrible oppression that a whole group of people suffered. And when you forget about that terrible oppression, you're less likely to be sympathetic to their demands for reform or better treatment or acknowledgement of the way history has treated them.

The popular Statue of Liberty story doesn't include anything about abolition. Do you think we should include it when we talk about the statue?
Yeah, absolutely we should. What's on the [official] website is a very incomplete version. It deprives the history of its richness.

When the Statue of Liberty was unveiled, African American–run newspapers were not very sympathetic to it. There was a lot of commentary about why black people should be overjoyed about this symbol, supposedly of American liberty, when they never had it. So there's a fair amount of hostility on the part of black Americans—not exactly hostility, but a sense that the Statue of Liberty isn't their statue, because most American blacks didn't feel like they really had liberty.

But, in a sense, it originally was a statue for African Americans.
Yeah, absolutely. The original meaning of the Statue of Liberty was very favorable to the situation of African Americans in this country, to their future, to their membership in the nation. It really is, in a lot of ways, a symbolic celebration of their liberation. And most of that symbolism has gotten lost.

With all the racial issues we're having today, how do you think this would impact our current society if the Statue of Liberty's true origins were more widely known?
I think it would be a really good thing. I think it would be consistent with the symbolism that most of us understand that the Statue of Liberty now to involve. With all of our controversies over immigration, with our racial animosities and racial conflict, I think that if the three important meanings of the Statue of Liberty—liberty, abolition, and welcome to immigrants from around the world—if all of those things were remembered more explicitly, it might be a way of injecting something positive into our political situation that has become so troubled today.

You can buy Ed Berenson's book on Amazon and follow Zachary Schwartz on Twitter.