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The Go-Ahead Spirit
ON THE MORNING of October 28, 1886, the sun struggled unsuccessfully to break through the blanket of fog that had settled over New York harbor. The air was dank and leaden, and a predawn rainstorm had drenched the red, white, and blue bunting that hung from every lamppost, window ledge, and cornice in the business district, causing the red dyes to bleed a little into the white, so that the city looked as if it had been invaded overnight by an army of energetic but incompetent laundresses. It was an unpromising beginning for a civic holiday, but the people of New York were not about to let a mere act of nature spoil their jubilant mood. By seven A.M., three hours before the festivities were officially slated to begin, the streets from Madison Square south to the Battery were filled. Several thousand more revelers had crowded onto the Brooklyn Bridge, where they jostled for space for themselves and their picnic lunches, undeterred by the fact that the marvel they had come to see, the Statue of Liberty, was only intermittently visible through the heavy mist.
Uptown at Madison Square, twenty thousand people, cheerful in spite of the threatening skies, had turned out to march in the parade that would welcome Lady Liberty to New York. The marching units began with the U.S. Marine band, the Sons of Lafayette, and the New York Seventy-first Regiment National Guard, known as the "Gallant Seventy-first," and continued with the Washington Guard drill team escorting the coach used by President Washington to ride to his inauguration, followed by a delegation of Freemasons, the student body of Columbia University, various Negro bands, a scale model of the Monitor escorted by a young boy in a full-dress Navy uniform, volunteer firemen pulling the city's oldest fire engine, wagons carrying invalid veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic, and, finally, representatives of every conceivable organization with a Franco-American membership—among them the Alsace-Lorraine Union and three culinary societies—and marching bands playing the "Marseillaise." The procession took more than three hours to pass the reviewing stand, by which time President Grover Cleveland and the other dignitaries had already departed to catch the boats that would take them to the statue itself for the official dedication.
The ceremony on tiny Bedloe's Island had originally been planned for a small audience, with seats in the reviewing stands allotted to the usual assortment of politicians, committeemen, and business and civic leaders. However, the New York World's announcement that it was hiring a boat so that its employees could watch the festivities from offshore had inspired a rush of imitators. Every seaworthy vessel in New York harbor, and some not so seaworthy, had been pressed into service for the occasion. By midmorning, millionaires' yachts, excursion steamers, fishing vessels, ferryboats, and hundreds of flag-draped rowboats and dinghys, some dangerously overloaded, were anchored in the vicinity.
Charles Bigot, covering the occasion for the Paris Press Association, was amazed at the show of popular enthusiasm: "It looks as if at this moment the entire population of the three cities [New York, Brooklyn, and Jersey City] is on the water," he wrote in his notebook. "When we arrive at Bedloe's, a hundred, two hundred ships are already grouped around us, forming a kind of floating archipelago of crowded islands; and other ships never stop coming from everywhere."
Another reporter, summing up the spirit of the day, said simply, "human joy has rarely been so bright."
As it was impossible to manage a traditional unveiling for a 151-foot-tall statue, the organizers of the event had compromised by having a red, white, and blue tarp—they preferred to call it a veil—draped over Liberty's eyes. This arrangement gave the statue a bizarre aspect; it looked less like a bride than a harem girl, some thought. The tarp also figured in the only major foul-up of the day. During the keynote speech of former secretary of state, Senator William Evarts, a hopeful official misinterpreted one of Evarts's extended rhetorical pauses and prematurely gave the signal for the unveiling. Sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, hiding in the statue's head, unloosed the ropes. The tarp fell. The cannons boomed. The assembled boats offshore tooted their horns. Senator Evarts, meanwhile, continued his remarks, speaking for another half an hour, undeterred by the fact that his audience was no longer paying the slightest attention.
However inadvertently, Evarts had contributed the one moment of the day that would be recalled in every history book. However, it was another orator, the French engineer and promoter Ferdinand de Lesseps, who made the strongest impression on those in attendance. The choice of Lesseps to make the official presentation on behalf of France had caused no little consternation among the event's New York sponsors. A few years earlier, many American investors, including some prominent members of the committee organizing the day's festivities, had purchased stock in the company formed by Lesseps to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The investors had been criticized at the time for supporting a plan that would result in a transoceanic canal operating under foreign ownership. Now the project was in trouble, there were rumors of bankruptcy, and the disgruntled investors resented Lesseps for luring them into the scheme that was not only unpopular, but unprofitable.
According to Cuban journalist José Martí, who was covering the Liberty Day celebration for the New York Sun as well as for several Latin American papers, many spectators at the prededi-cation parade, while hugely enjoying the celebration, were cynical not only about the presence of Lesseps but about the motives of the French in general. Circulating among the crowd, Martí heard one man, speaking of the Revolutionary War, observe mockingly that "France only helped us because her king was an enemy of England." Another remarked sarcastically that France was giving us the statue as a bribe, "so that we will let her finish the canal in peace."
Nevertheless, when Lesseps got his chance to speak, he instantly won over his audience. Eighty-one years old but still vigorous and imposing, he seemed larger than life as he stood bareheaded in the drizzle and addressed the crowd in a voice that Martí described as "resonant like bronze." Martí's heart went out to Lesseps because he was the only speaker of the day even to mention the existence of the "other America," expressing the hope that "the thirty-eight stars of North America will soon float at the side of the banners of the independent states of South America, and will form in the New World, for the benefit of all mankind, the peaceful and prolific alliance of the Franco-Latin and the Anglo-Saxon races."
In the meantime, the Frenchman charmed his North American listeners with his definition of the statue's symbolism: "In landing beneath its rays, people will know that they have reached a land where individual initiative is developed in all its power; where progress is a religion.... You are right, American citizens, to be proud of your 'go ahead.' You have made great headway in a hundred years thanks to that cry."
Lesseps's speech got top billing in newspaper accounts of the festivities, and the editorial writers were particularly taken with this tribute to our nation's "go ahead" spirit. The phrase seemed to capture perfectly the buoyant mood of the country, the sense that progress was not only a religion, but a peculiarly American religion, inseparable from the promise of democracy.
While Lesseps, Evarts, and the "silver orator" Chauncey Depew dominated the proceedings on that first Liberty Day celebration, the true hero of the occasion sat in silence on the unvarnished pine reviewing stand. In the spring of 1886, the thirty-nine-year-old publisher Joseph Pulitzer had learned that "the big girl," as her creator Bartholdi called her, was sitting in a Rouen warehouse divided up among 210 packing crates, her shipment to the United States delayed because the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty had been unable to raise the money to pay for the statue's pedestal. In two decades of fund-raising, the committee had received little help from New York's newspapers. James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the owner of the New York Herald, had advocated abandoning the Liberty project and substituting in its place a modestly scaled statue of Lafayette. The New York Times, in 1876, had asserted that "No true patriot can support such expenditures for a bronze female in the present state of our finances."
Pulitzer had at first pointed out in an editorial that the committee's $100,000 deficit could be eliminated with "the dash of a millionaire's pen." When no benefactor came forward, he took the challenge to his readers in an impassioned editorial:
There is but one thing that can be done. We must raise the money.
The World is the people's paper, and it now appeals to the people to come forward.... [The statue] is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America. Take this appeal to yourself personally.... Let us hear from the people.
No one had yet officially suggested that the statue had anything to do with immigration. Although Emma Lazarus's sonnet, "The New Colossus," had been written two years earlier, its sentiments were too controversial for the American Committee, which continued to solicit funds on the basis of the statue's significance as a symbol of Franco-American friendship. Within five months of Pulitzer's appeal, nickel and dime contributions from the World's immigrant readers enabled the campaign to reach its goal. Pulitzer's effort was acknowledged by the committee, which had his name engraved on a gold rivet placed in the statue's toe, an honor he shared only with Bartholdi.
Through his efforts, the "big girl" had been transformed into a people's monument.
Pulitzer's autobiography was the typical immigrant success story in every way but one: He was not born poor. His father, Philip Politzer, or Pulitzer, was a Jewish grain broker from Mako, Hungary. His mother, Louise (née Berger), was a Roman Catholic whose two brothers were officers in the Austro-Hungarian army. Philip Pulitzer had a heart condition, and in 1853 he sold his business and moved the family to Budapest. Joseph, six years old at the time, was educated along with his two brothers and a sister by a home tutor and in private schools. Louis, the eldest of the brothers, died shortly after the move to Budapest, and Philip Pulitzer passed away a few years later. Joseph was in his early teens when his mother remarried, and tension between him and his stepfather was probably the reason for his impulsive decision, at seventeen, to run away from home to join the army, any army.
Although he was six foot two and an excellent horseman, Pulitzer did not impress recruiters as a good candidate for the soldier's life. Nearsighted and narrow chested, a pale kid with a beak of a nose, a prominent pointy chin, and pink cheeks that flushed at the slightest provocation, he looked exactly like what he was: a middle-class bookworm. Turned down by the Austrians, by the French Foreign Legion, and by recruiters for the British Army of India in London, he eventually made his way to Hamburg, Germany, where he ran into a U.S. agent who was signing up foreign volunteers for the Union Army.
The year was 1864, and the Grand Army of the Republic was desperate for cannon fodder. Arriving in Boston in September, Pulitzer was inducted into the First Lincoln Cavalry, a regiment organized by Carl Schurz, the exiled German revolutionary who was now a Union general. Several companies of the First Lincoln were made up entirely of German-speaking volunteers, many of them career soldiers who had fought in the Revolutions of 1848. Pulitzer was assigned to one of these companies and spent the final months of the Civil War riding cavalry patrols in northern Virginia, under the command of grizzled noncoms who barked out their orders in German and took special delight in thinking up ways to torment the scholarly, high-strung, half-Jewish private.
When the war ended, Pulitzer joined the ranks of rootless, unemployed veterans. Still wearing his tattered uniform, he was pounding the streets of New York looking for work when he ventured into the lobby of French's Hotel on Park Row to get his shoes shined. He was ejected by an officious doorman, an insult to himself and his uniform that he never forgave. In despair, he sold an embroidered silk handkerchief, the last of the personal belongings he had brought with him from home, for seventy-five cents. He spent the money on a supply of food and then hopped a freight car headed for St. Louis, a city with a large German-speaking population.
In St. Louis, he spent three years drifting from one dead-end job to the next. Hired as a mule hostler he lasted only two days—"The man who has not cared for sixteen mules does not know what work and troubles are," he later reminisced. Then came stints as a stevedore, a crewman on a riverboat, a hack driver, a process server and, at the height of a summer cholera epidemic, the warden of an island in the Mississippi where the Department of Health buried unclaimed bodies. He spent every spare moment at the city's Mercantile Library, studying English, reading law, and kibitzing in the chess room.
It was Pulitzer's brilliance at chess that brought him his first real opportunity. Among the intellectual Germans who frequented the Mercantile Library's chess room were Dr. Emil Preetorius and Carl Schurz, the former sponsor of Pulitzer's cavalry regiment. Determined to do something for their bright but impoverished young partner, Preetorius and Schurz found him a job as a bookkeeper in a lumberyard and eventually hired him as a reporter on their small German-language paper, the Westliche Post.
Pulitzer had just turned twenty-one and was attempting to disguise his hatchetlike profile with a beard. The first growth to appear was bright red and scraggly and instead of hiding his jutting chin only drew attention to it. A ferociously hard worker, he ran full tilt from one assignment to another, and as soon as he arrived at the scene of a story began firing questions at everyone in sight in rapid, heavily accented English. The reporters from the English-language press immediately nicknamed him "Joey the Jew" and, like his former comrades-in-arms, set to work thinking of ways to make the greenhorn's life miserable. Almost every day one of them would slip him an ersatz "tip," sending him on a wild-goose chase to some distant and unwelcoming corner of the city. William Fayel, a reporter for the St. Louis Democrat during Pulitzer's first years in journalism, recalled that the teasing ended abruptly when the Democrat's city editor, Major Gilson, noticed that his paper was being scooped regularly by a mere ethnic weekly and posted a notice ordering his reporters to spend less time "deluding" the German cub reporter and more time competing with him.
Fifteen years later, the greenhorn reporter had become the publisher of the most innovative, exciting English-language newspaper in the Middle West and a power to reckon with in Missouri politics. Along the way, he had also accumulated a modest but comfortable personal fortune and a wife, the former Washington, D.C., socialite Kate Worthington Davis, who was, of all things, a distant cousin of the former president of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
There is a common misconception that Pulitzer was a joyless workaholic. On the contrary, Pulitzer was an enthusiast, a man of boundless intellectual curiosity who, despite poor health, managed to live every day to the utmost. During the fifteen years when he was laying the groundwork of his career, he still found time to ride horseback, manage his own investments, and study Plato and Aristotle in the original Greek. Planning his wedding trip to Europe, and worried about having empty hours to fill, he invited his actor friend John McCullough to travel on the same ship so they could discuss Shakespeare. Surprisingly, considering this beginning, his marriage worked out well, largely thanks to Kate, who possessed a remarkable ability to accommodate her husband's eccentricities without losing either her dignity or her good humor. The Pulitzers entertained regularly and traveled extensively, and during periods when business kept Joseph working long hours at the office, he encouraged his wife to bring the children around for a visit every afternoon.
Excerpted from The Yellow Kids by Joyce Milton. Copyright © 1989 Joyce Milton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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