Standing tall in the New York Harbor with a torch gleaming over the city is Liberty Enlightening the World. Erected in 1886, her more established title is the Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty is one of the most recognizable monuments in the world and on average about 10,000 people visit every day. One of its notable attractions is a sonnet that rests inside her pedestal. On a bronze plaque is the poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus.
In 1883, the American author wrote the poem as a tribute and fundraising effort for the Bartholdi Pedestal, for which the Statue of Liberty was to stand. The poem is often cited to promote notions of racial diversity and equality. The lines “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” have fostered the idea that the Statue of Liberty is a beacon of hope for immigrants. And throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s immigrants from Europe did view the monument as a “welcoming” statement by the United States. However, while Lazarus’ words do evoke a sense of warmth and empathy, her sonnet may have been a more poignant observation of the geo-politics of her time.
Clemson University professor Walt Hunter pointed out in the Atlantic, “in 1883, the Chinese Exclusion Act became the first federal law that limited immigration from a particular group… [and] the year after Lazarus’s poem was read, the European countries met in Berlin to divide up the African continent into colonies.” The New Colossus may have served as more of a veiled critique of America than an uplifting tribute. It’s also worth noting that Emma Lazarus’ poem wasn’t added until 1903, seventeen years after the statue’s dedication. The original symbolism behind Lady Liberty can be viewed through the eyes of French legal scholar Édouard de Laboulaye.
Edouard de Laboulaye was a professor at the College de France and was considered one of the most prominent historians of the U.S Constitution during the 19th century. He is also the “Father of the Statue of Liberty”. It was his idea of presenting a monument from the French people to those of the United States that launched the journey for Lady Liberty. According to Walter Dennis Gray, who wrote the book Interpreting American Democracy in France: The Career of Édouard Laboulaye, the constitutional scholar “earnestly desired that the France of his day reflect on America and draw on the American experience to reform its own political institutions.” Ultimately, de Laboulaye wanted to forge a partnership with the United States and make “America known to France.” He sought to create a symbol and in the words of the U.S. National Park Service, “inspire the French people to call for democracy.” In the nineteenth century, in France the term liberty often referred to revolutions.
There’s one more interesting anecdote worth mentioning in regards to the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty’s distinctive bluish-green color was originally a copper brown. Based on images from the early 20th century the Statue of Liberty didn’t completely change to her present color until around 1920. This change occurred due to a combination of oxidation and weatherization. As the copper was exposed to the outside elements it transformed into what we see today.