The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story

The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story

by Edward Berenson

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A universally recognized icon, the Statue of Liberty is perhaps the most beloved of all American symbols. Yet no one living in 1885, when the crated monument arrived in New York Harbor, could have foreseen the central place the Statue of Liberty would come to occupy in the American imagination. With the particular insights of a cultural historian and scholar of


A universally recognized icon, the Statue of Liberty is perhaps the most beloved of all American symbols. Yet no one living in 1885, when the crated monument arrived in New York Harbor, could have foreseen the central place the Statue of Liberty would come to occupy in the American imagination. With the particular insights of a cultural historian and scholar of French history, Edward Berenson tells the little-known stories of the statue’s improbable beginnings, transatlantic connections, and the changing meanings it has held for each successive American generation.

Berenson begins with the French intellectuals who decided for their own domestic political reasons to pay monumental tribute to American liberty. Without any official backing, they designed the statue, announced the gift, and determined where it should go. The initial American response, not surprisingly, was less than enthusiastic, and the project had to overcome countless difficulties before the statue was at last unveiled to the public in New York Harbor in 1886. The trials of its inception and construction, however, are only half of the story. Berenson shows that the statue’s symbolically indistinct, neoclassical form has allowed Americans to interpret its meaning in diverse ways: as representing the emancipation of the slaves, Tocqueville's idea of orderly liberty, opportunity for "huddled masses," and, in the years since 9/11, the freedom and resilience of New York City and the United States in the face of terror.

Editorial Reviews

Library of Congress
Berenson’s contribution is in pointing out how this symbol has continued to engage Americans’ imagination. . . . Readers interested in the statue’s treatment in domestic popular culture will want to consult Berenson.—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress

— Frederick J. Augustyn Jr.

Tucson Citizen
Edward Berenson, a professor of history at New York University, has written a highly readable history. . . . His book is meticulously researched and crisply written.— Larry Cox, Tucson Citizen

— Larry Cox

New York Times
If you think you know all there is to know about the Statue of Liberty, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Edward Berenson’s The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story.—Sam Roberts, New York Times

— Sam Roberts

Louisville Courier-Journal

An “endlessly fascinating read.”—Louisville Courier-Journal

Alice M. Greenwald
“Arriving shortly after the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty’s dedication, Ed Berenson’s charming and eminently readable book is itself a cause for celebration. Offering fascinating insights into the origins, controversies, challenges, and achievements associated with this most familiar icon of the American dream of freedom, The Statue of Liberty reminds us that while the journey towards freedom is rarely smooth, the ever-evolving symbolic power of the Colossus of New York Harbor endures, because the aspiration for liberty is fundamental to our humanity. On 9/11, this 'mighty woman' stood as witness to devastation and mass murder; standing tall and unharmed in the harbor overlooking the wounded skyline of this great city, the statue originally envisioned as 'Liberty Enlightening the World' now takes on new meaning as a beacon of resilience and renewal.”—Alice M. Greenwald, Director, National September 11 Memorial Museum
Joyce Appleby
“Who knew what a history lies behind the Statue of Liberty, winding through the American Civil War, the Paris Commune, the determination of its creator Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and the hucksterism of Joseph Pulitzer? Edward Berenson re-creates the narrative with fascinating detail and personal warmth.”—Joyce Appleby, author of The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism
Richard Wolin
“Edward Berenson’s The Statue of Liberty is cultural history at its finest. As Berenson shows with verve and discernment, the Statue of Liberty is a highly contested memory site. Thus throughout its history, the statue has functioned as a litmus test or projection screen for competing conceptions of American freedom. Artfully constructed and gracefully written, Berenson’s book is destined to become the standard work on Lady Liberty’s legacy.”—Richard Wolin, author of The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s
Ruth Harris
“This is a remarkable book because so much of the story it tells is unexpected.  Everyone thinks they know the Statue of Liberty, but they are wrong. Ed Berenson follows her surprising history from start to finish in a fast-paced and highly readable tale that never disappoints. The great colossus finds her place in nineteenth-century artistic production and technology as well as in recent popular culture and politics. Rather than ending with the statue’s unveiling, Berenson follows the story right up to the present day, showing how the Lady's meaning has changed from one generation to the next. At times humorous, at other moments elegiac, The Statue of Liberty is utterly spellbinding and a jewel of microhistorical analysis.”—Ruth Harris, author of Dreyfus: Emotion, Politics and the Scandal of the Century, winner of the Wolfson Prize
Melissa J. Martens

“This important work examines not only the evolution of the statue, but the ever-evolving American relationship to freedom and immigration.  Berenson here explores the wide range of perceptions that gave the statue meaning and voice—from its very conception, through its contemporary status as a beloved (yet fraught) American icon.”—Melissa J. Martens, Museum of Jewish Heritage
Francois Delattre
"There is no better symbol to represent the long friendship between France and the United States than the Statue of Liberty. Edward Berenson’s fascinating new book brings to light the various meanings the Statue has held since its creation more than 125 years ago."—François Delattre, Ambassador of France to the United States
Library of Congress - Frederick J. Augustyn Jr.

“Berenson’s contribution is in pointing out how this symbol has continued to engage Americans’ imagination. . . . Readers interested in the statue’s treatment in domestic popular culture will want to consult Berenson.”—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress
Tucson Citizen - Larry Cox

“Edward Berenson, a professor of history at New York University, has written a highly readable history. . . . His book is meticulously researched and crisply written.”— Larry Cox, Tucson Citizen
New York Times - Sam Roberts

“If you think you know all there is to know about the Statue of Liberty, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Edward Berenson’s The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story.”—Sam Roberts, New York Times
Choice - Outstanding Academic Title

Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic 2012 Title for subcategory North America within the Social and Behavioral Sciences category.
Fran�ois Delattre

"There is no better symbol to represent the long friendship between France and the United States than the Statue of Liberty. Edward Berenson’s fascinating new book brings to light the various meanings the Statue has held since its creation more than 125 years ago."—François Delattre, Ambassador of France to the United States
François Delattre

"There is no better symbol to represent the long friendship between France and the United States than the Statue of Liberty. Edward Berenson’s fascinating new book brings to light the various meanings the Statue has held since its creation more than 125 years ago."—François Delattre, Ambassador of France to the United States

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Icons of America Series
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Product dimensions:
5.84(w) x 8.28(h) x 0.88(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Statue of Liberty

A Transatlantic Story
By Edward Berenson


Copyright © 2012 Edward Berenson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14950-0

Chapter One

The Idea

This story begins, as many French stories do, around a dinner table. It was early summer of 1865, the locale a charming village just southwest of Paris. The French legal scholar Edouard de Laboulaye had gathered an intimate group of like-minded liberals at his well-appointed country residence in Glatigny. The group included Oscar de Lafayette, grandson of George Washington's comrade in arms; Count Charles de Rémusat, whose wife was another of Lafayette's grandchildren; Hippolyte de Tocqueville, brother of the deceased author of Democracy in America; and a young up-and-coming sculptor named Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, future architect of the Statue of Liberty. By any measure, this was a distinguished circle of men.

Their liberalism must be understood in its nineteenth-century sense. Laboulaye and his guests occupied a sliver of centrist political ground, with conservative Catholics, monarchists, and supporters of Napoleon III, the current ruler, on their right, and progressive republicans, democrats, and socialists on their left. In terms of social standing, Laboulaye and his guests resembled much of the right, but they shared with the left a distaste for Napoleon III's authoritarian government and a desire for the individual liberties he had suppressed.

Laboulaye stood out as France's leading authority on the United States, and although constraints on free speech discouraged him from saying so directly, he preferred the American political system to recent and prevailing ones in France. The Frenchman liked America's strong tradition of individual liberty, the checks and balances that limited the size and reach of government, and its optimistic belief in individual advancement through schooling, civic involvement, and membership in voluntary associations. Laboulaye had published many books, some more polemical than scholarly, and he taught a popular course at the prestigious Collège de France. His best-known work was a three-volume History of the United States (1862–66). The professor's polemical writing appeared mainly in the Journal des Débats, a politically moderate newspaper in which he gently advocated individual rights vis-à-vis the state. He even published two novels, one of which, Paris in America (1864), made fun of French political habits by comparing them to American ones.

The ostensible reason for his dinner party was to celebrate the North's victory in the American Civil War and to mourn the death of Abraham Lincoln, whom members of the group, like so many of their French compatriots, had idolized. Lincoln was Laboulaye's hero, not only for saving the Union, but for allowing the Frenchman to preserve his attachment to the United States and its institutions. As a principled liberal, the professor hated slavery and served as the head of France's antislavery society. A great many of his American friends and correspondents—Laboulaye never traveled to North America—had distinguished themselves as abolitionist leaders. And Laboulaye's antislavery views had played a major role in turning him against his own government. Napoleon III sided with the South in the Civil War in the belief that a divided America would be too weak to thwart his imperial designs on Mexico, to which the French emperor sent an invasion army in 1862. With U.S. slavery abolished and the Union restored, Laboulaye could maintain intact his rosy view of the United States.

After dinner, the professor and his guests discussed ways they could show the North's victorious leaders that not everyone in France had joined their government in opposing them. Laboulaye wanted to combine that effort with a gesture designed to highlight the superiority of the American political system over France's authoritarian one. It was risky to criticize the Bonapartist government openly, but opponents could attack it indirectly by extolling the merits of another, better place. We don't know exactly what Laboulaye's liberals decided that evening, since no one said anything about it until twenty years later. Only then, in a short fund-raising pamphlet, did Bartholdi explicitly trace the origin of the Statue of Liberty to the dinner of 1865 chez Laboulaye. Most readers took the sculptor's comments to mean that the professor and his guests had decided at that event to create a statue as a gift from France to an American republic soon to celebrate its hundredth birthday. What Laboulaye actually said, according to Bartholdi, was both more tentative and less unilateral: "If a monument should rise in the United States, as a memorial to their independence, I should think it only natural if it were built by united effort—a common work of both our nations." The monument was not to be a gift from France to the U.S., but a common effort of two peoples equally devoted to liberty; the Frenchman acknowledged ruefully that only America enjoyed this freedom.

The idea of a statue of liberty in connection with Lincoln and the United States had in fact surfaced in France in 1865, but not at Laboulaye's summer home. Shortly after news of the president's assassination reached the other side of the Atlantic, a provincial paper, Le Phare de la Loire (the Loire Lighthouse) took up a collection for a gold medal dedicated to Mary Todd Lincoln. Bartholdi, along with other prominent French artists and intellectuals, helped publicize the fund-raising campaign, which Napoleon III's government tried unsuccessfully to suppress. Money poured in from around the country, and the finished medallion bore the inscription "Dedicated [to] Lincoln, the honest man, who abolished slavery, restored the union, and saved the Republic without veiling the statue of liberty."

Did Bartholdi amalgamate these different elements—the medallion campaign and the dinner party—perhaps without realizing it, twenty years after the fact? Since no gift emerged from Laboulaye's group, and Bartholdi didn't mention a sculptural project for the United States until 1870, it's likely that the idea took some years to germinate in the artist's mind. The delay can't be attributed to a lack of models. Goddesses of liberty, first represented in ancient Rome, resurfaced in profusion during the French Revolution and paraded throughout France from one end of the nineteenth century to the other.

Perhaps the most famous of these female "liberties" stands at the center of Eugène Delacroix's 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People to the Barricades. The canvas refers to France's Revolution of 1830 and portrays an allegorical "liberty," or "Marianne," as she came to be known in France, waving the flag of revolution amid a battle scene that features bourgeois and plebeian men united in the cause of freedom. Leading the charge, Marianne towers over the male fighters, her breasts bared and arm aloft sweeping the light of liberty into a halo that illuminates her entire form. This image became an icon of revolution, a collection of symbols whose Phrygian cap, ardent motion, and partial nudity conveyed a message of radicalism. The Phrygian cap, borrowed from ancient Rome, represented the liberation of the enslaved and oppressed, while motion and nudity stood for the ferocious phases of the French Revolution. After the overthrow and execution of the king in 1792–93, goddesses of liberty came to symbolize the new republic that emerged. But the juxtaposition of terror and the reaction against it produced two kinds of republicanism, one radical and one moderate. The radical version, which Delacroix placed at the center of his painting, made the goddess of liberty a vehement, headstrong figure bristling with mobile energy, just like revolutionaries on the street. Her breasts spilled out from a loose-fitting garment, signaling a natural, Eden-like freedom not without overtones of Eros. Competing with this radical goddess was her far more moderate cousin, a sedate figure who represented the temperate face of French republicanism. This alternative "liberty" stood or sat in one place with a placid expression on her face and her body fully and chastely clothed.

Bartholdi, like Laboulaye, rejected the radical version of French republicanism; his statue would resemble the staid goddesses of liberty that appeared after the Terror of 1793–94, and especially after the Revolution of 1848. These emblems of moderation were designed to calm political passions and steer the country toward a centrist path. One such image, a painting by Ange-Louis Janet-Lange prominently displayed in an artistic competition of 1848, depicted a fully dressed young woman seated and holding a lit torch above her head. Bartholdi must have been familiar with this painting, because he later adapted its title, La France éclarant le monde (France Illuminating [or Enlightening] the World), for his Statue of Liberty, which he originally called "Liberty Enlightening the World." Janet-Lange's canvas anticipates the Statue of Liberty's form, as does another image from 1848, this one by Eugène-Andreé Oudiné, which looks even more like the monument Bartholdi would create.

Even if Laboulaye and Bartholdi didn't discuss at the 1865 dinner a monumental gift to the United States, much less a statue of liberty, the sculptor would have had female images of liberty in his head. Such images, as Bartholdi knew, had been familiar to Laboulaye as well. In a pro-Union polemic of 1862, the scholar urged his readers "to range ourselves round [Lincoln and the North], and to hold aloft with a firm hand that old French banner, on which is inscribed, Liberty." In the early and mid-1860s, with liberty stifled in France and threatened in the United States, Bartholdi likely added the goddess of liberty to his artistic and intellectual repertoire. It was a repertoire shaped not by the elite Ecole des beaux-arts, where most talented young artists wanted to study, but by private tutoring and direct access to the leading sculptural ateliers in France. He was admitted thanks to the wealth and connections his family enjoyed.

The Bartholdis (originally Barthold and later Latinized) came from the German Rhineland, where they stood as pillars of the Lutheran church and prospered in business, commerce, and the professions. The family moved across the Rhine to the province of Alsace not long after the territory had passed from German to French hands. They ultimately settled in Colmar, where the Bartholdi mansion still stands as a private museum dedicated to the sculptor's life and work. Auguste Bartholdi's father, Jean-Charles, was a successful civil servant whose land and real estate holdings made him a wealthy man. After his early death in 1836 (Auguste was born in 1834), his widow, Charlotte, capably managed the family fortune, earning enough to shield her son from all financial concerns. Auguste could pursue his work without having to seek commissions from either private individuals or the state. But his professional autonomy came at a cost. Throughout his life, he remained financially and emotionally dependent on his strong-willed, domineering mother, to whom he wrote faithfully and frequently until her death in 1891.

These letters tell us much of what we know about the conception and planning of the Statue of Liberty, its various fund-raising campaigns, Bartholdi's friends and relations, and his thoughts about his work. They also reveal how much he depended on his mother's approval and the intensity of his attachment to her. He didn't marry until his early forties, and in his letters home he described his new wife, Emilie Jeanne Baheux, as anything but an object of romantic attention or sexual desire. Jeanne, Auguste wrote, resembled a "cousin," who shows "the challenges of her life and her age." Bartholdi apparently wanted his mother to believe that Jeanne could bear children, presenting her as thirty-six when she was actually forty-seven, but he made it abundantly clear that his wife couldn't possibly outshine or overshadow her. Jeanne "has nothing brilliant about her, and she possesses neither fortune, beauty, musical talent, nor worldly éclat." If this description wasn't enough to reassure his mother, Auguste reported that Jeanne's "only concern is to have your affection."

Bartholdi's well-documented attachment to his mother has led biographers and historians to believe that the sculptor imprinted Charlotte's facial features on the Statue of Liberty, but it's doubtful he did. His letters do not suggest that Charlotte was the model for Liberty, which, had it been true, would have greatly pleased the grande dame. Still, there is something of the strong mother in the Statue of Liberty, especially as a highly dependent son might imagine her. She's powerful though unthreatening, asexual but still womanly, at once protective and welcoming. Auguste's friend, the French senator Jules François Bozérian, grasped a fundamental truth in maintaining that the New York monument stood as a "work of filial piety." In any case, the strong mother imagery quickly took hold. Already in 1883, Emma Lazarus's poem, "The New Colossus," later to be indelibly associated with the Statue of Liberty, described the monument as a "mighty woman" and "mother of exiles."

Lazarus's poem made explicit the sculptural lineage to which the Statue of Liberty belonged: the colossi first erected in ancient Egypt and Rome and revived during the Renaissance, thanks in part to the Medicis' desire to symbolize their wealth and power. In the early nineteenth century, artists turned once again to the colossal in the form of Napoleonic grandeur and outsized icons of a new German nationalism. One of Bartholdi's mentors, Antoine Etex, had sculpted two of the giant bas-reliefs that adorn Napoleon's monumental Arc de Triomphe, which ranked as the world's highest triumphal arch (160 feet) until 1982, when North Korea built a slightly taller one for Kim Il-Sung's seventieth birthday.

It's possible that Bartholdi first associated colossal sculpture with reverence for America while under the tutelage of Etex, who idolized the United States and would have familiarized his pupil with the real and mythical colossi of the ancient and Renaissance worlds. Particularly significant was the legendary Colossus of Rhodes, famously depicted in an engraving of 1725 by Fischer von Erlach. Here, a huge male figure stands astride the entrance to the harbor of Rhodes. He holds a smoking torch aloft and wears a crown of spokes not unlike the Statue of Liberty's diadem. Bartholdi called this ancient figure "the most celebrated colossal statue of antiquity." Beyond this classical image, Bartholdi, like all art students of his age, would have known Michelangelo's huge, if not colossal, David, and the French sculptor later photographed G. B. Crespi's St. Charles Borromeo, a seventeenth-century statue that took nearly a century to build and that rises seventy-five feet atop a pedestal of another forty feet. Finally, Bartholdi acknowledged the influence of two monuments to German glory and the nineteenth-century project of national unification: Ludwig Schwanthaler's ninety-foot Bavaria (1848) and Ernst von Bandel's Arminius (1875), a gigantic 172-foot monument commemorating the Barbarian hero who annihilated the advancing Roman army in AD 9 and attempted to unite the main Germanic tribes.

Discussing the merits of colossal statuary, Bartholdi's friend and collaborator E. Lesbazeilles wrote, "That a statue of great size must offer wider meaning, and partake in character of the ideal, is so well understood by the sculptors of our own day that they have almost always reserved the form either for the portrayal of symbols, or for the depiction of personages who belong as much to legend as to history, and are destined to become symbols themselves." Bartholdi's artistic milieu and historical era had primed him for the creation of such symbols, which helps explain the genesis of the Statue of Liberty and why, for the French sculptor, only a colossus could represent the Franco-American connection he hoped to both deepen and commemorate.

Bartholdi's first professional foray into colossal statuary came in 1855, when he unveiled a huge bronze statue of the Napoleonic general Jean Rapp. The piece stood so high—nearly twenty-five feet—that it couldn't fit inside the exhibition hall. The Salon jury decided to show it outside, making Bartholdi a famous man. The following year he took a long, arduous trip up the Nile, where he marveled over the Colossi of Thebes (Luxor today), the two stone statues of Middle Kingdom pharaohs built more than three thousand years ago. Describing these sixty-foot-tall towers of rock, Bartholdi wrote, "We are filled with profound emotion in the presence of these colossal witnesses, centuries old, of a past that to us is almost infinite.... These granite beings, in their imperturbable majesty, seem to be still listening to the most remote antiquity. Their kindly and impassible glance seems to ignore the present and to be fixed upon an unlimited future."

Bartholdi wanted to chisel colossi of his own, and, like the great sculptors of ancient times, he chose Egypt as his site. In 1869 Khedive Ismail, Egypt's westernizing ruler, agreed to see the French sculptor, who proposed to build a mammoth statue at the southern end of the newly opened Suez Canal, built by another Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps. Bartholdi's monument would embody Egypt's new role as linchpin between East and West. Although Ismail proved noncommittal, Bartholdi produced a series of drawings in which the proposed statue began as a gigantic female fellah, or Arab peasant, and gradually evolved into a colossal goddess that resembled the ones he had contemplated in the early and mid-1860s. If the original sketches already recalled his mentor Ary Scheffer's republican goddess of 1848, Bartholdi's final drawing for the khedive bore an uncanny likeness to what we know as the Statue of Liberty. Perched atop a high pedestal, the colossus, draped in loose-fitting robes, holds a torch high above its head. As a beacon, it would light the way for oncoming ships, and Bartholdi told the khedive it would symbolize "Progress," or "Egypt carrying the light to Asia."


Excerpted from The Statue of Liberty by Edward Berenson Copyright © 2012 by Edward Berenson. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Edward Berenson is professor of history, director of the Institute of French Studies, and director of the Center for International Research in Humanities and Social Sciences, New York University. His previous books include Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa. He lives in Irvington, NY.

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