Madame Liberté

statue of liberty with baguette
Lady Liberty showing her Frenchness.
Might this have been Bartholdi’s original design ? 

The Statue of Liberty is one of the most recognised symbols of the United States.  But did you know that Lady Liberty is an immigrant?  It’s true, she’s a French woman by birth who has made New York her home.  (No wonder she’s so elegant.)

There are replicas of this monument throughout the world and now, Nice, France has one too.  The Quai des Etats-Unis, “Quay of the United States” which fronts the Old Town has been given a facelift and a new statue of Lady Liberty adorns the way.  She’s a bit on the short side, only 1.35 metres (4 ft 5 in) but apparently she is cast from an original mould signed by Bartholdi, the sculptor who made the big one in New York.  And speaking of the Grand Lady in New York, did you know that she almost found herself homeless?

The idea
It all started in 1865 with a Frenchman called Edouard de Laboulaye.  He was an idealistic political thinker who wanted to make a monument to the liberty that both France and the United States valued.

It would be a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States with no government involvement. The French would produce the statue and the Americans would provide the pedestal on which it would stand.

Laboulaye enlisted the help of a sculptor friend named Auguste Bartholdi. Together they planned and waited for the right time to start their monumental project.  Ten years later (1875) the project was officially announced.

Americans don't want it, statue of liberty

The Americans don’t want it
This noble and idealistic French plan had only one little flaw.  They had not even considered the possibility that the Americans might not want to participate.  But that was the case.

Bartholdi went to New York to meet with the movers and shakers of the city.  When he explained that the people of France wanted to give America a giant statue to glorify the idea of liberty, that was fine with them.  When he asked them to fund the pedestal that it would need to stand on, that was a different matter.

They weren’t keen on a gift that cost them money.  They wanted to know how they could profit from it.  Could they advertise their businesses on the base? They half-heartedly agreed to form a committee to raise funds for the pedestal but the money was slow to come in.

Meanwhile the committee in France organised concerts, opera events, and collected money from individuals all over the country.  They raised the amount needed for the statue and construction began.

The arm misses the party
Bartholdi had hoped to present the completed statue at the opening festivities of the American Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, but the project was behind schedule. So he decided to present the most symbolic part of the statue – the arm holding the torch.  Unfortunately, the ship carrying it was a month late and the opening ceremonies were finished by the time the arm arrived.

But the Centennial Exhibition was still going strong, so Bartholdi picked up his giant arm at the port and went to Philadelphia where he exhibited it and charged people 50 cents to climb up to the flame.  It was a big hit and the interest of the American public was piqued by his project.  Back in Paris, Bartholdi continued his publicity by displaying Lady Liberty’s head at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair.

statue of liberty head
Lady Liberty’s head
at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878

All dressed up and nowhere to go
In 1884, after 9 years of construction, the statue was finally complete – but the base wasn’t. This giant of a woman had no place to go. The Parisians launched a petition to keep her, but in 1885, Bartholdi decided to send her to New York and hope the Americans would finish the pedestal.  The French government paid for the transportation to New York, which was the only government involvement in the entire project.  The 210 crates containing the dismantled lady arrived in New York and were stacked next to the unfinished base.  The Americans still needed to raise $100,000 to finish it.

The pennies roll in
An immigrant newspaper man named Joseph Pulitzer (the same one who later established the Pulitzer Prize) stepped in to save the day.  He decided to bypass the rich businessmen and do what the people of France had done.  He got the whole country involved.  Using his newspaper, he started a campaign asking everyone to give money, even if it was just a penny.  He promised to print the name of every person in his paper no matter how small their donation.  The rest of the money came pouring into the newspaper office in pennies, nickels, and dimes.  $102,000 was raised from 120,000 contributors.  Pulitzer kept his word and every contributor’s name was printed on the front page of his newspaper.

statue of liberty nice france
The small Lady Liberty in Nice

With the pennies of the people, the base was completed and the majestic French lady stepped up onto her pedestal. The statue that started as an idealistic French plan, and was unwanted by the Americans has become one of the most important symbols of the United States of America and today, people often forget that Lady Liberty is a French woman.  It’s no wonder the immigrants coming through Ellis Island could relate to her so well, she too is an immigrant.

A few more interesting facts:

  • The name given to the statue by the sculptor was La Liberté éclairant le monde, or “Liberty Enlightening the World”.
  • The interior iron structure was designed by Gustave Eiffel who later built the Eiffel tower.
  • At the time it was finished, the Statue of Liberty was the tallest iron structure ever built.
  • The statue in New York is 46 metres (151 ft) tall. The pedestal is 47 metres (154 ft) tall.
  • The statue in Nice is 1.35 metres (4 ft 5 in) tall. The pedestal is 2 metres (6 ft  6 in) tall
  • The promenade which runs along the sea in front of the Old Town of Nice was named Quai des Etats-Unis “Quay of the United States” in 1917 in honour of the United States decision to enter World War I on the side of the Allies.

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Margo Lestz
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    1. You’re welcome. I think many people know that the statue came from France, but the whole story isn’t that well known. Glad you liked it. 🙂

  1. This is just like Paul Harvey and his “The Rest of the Story” radio program… Love the extra details as always. Things we can impress friends with! Very interesting Margo! thanks for sharing this background. I took a friend from Scotland to see her when he visited a few years ago and we didn’t get this much clarity from being there! Good for you!

    1. Thanks Jonelle, this is the view from the French side. I think this story really illustrates the difference between the ‘idealistic’ French and the ‘practical’ Americans. That’s a big generalization, of course, but there is some truth to it. Thank goodness the Americans got their act together and put up the statue. 🙂

      1. Good thing indeed- otherwise France would be stuck with the tired, the poor, and the needy of the world. .. oh, I forgot, they do have those too! All kidding aside, I do think that ‘gift’ made America a better, more compassionate country- we had something to live up to. For better our worse, I’m glad she exists (the real lady, not just the little ones around France!)

  2. Great post. What an interesting story. All the detail are fascinating. I’m sure you know there are two liberty statues in Paris: one on the Seine and one in the Luxembourg Garden. Do you know if there are others in France besides Nice?

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