Considering that it’s the quintessential symbol of freedom and the American Dream, U.S. citizens know surprisingly little about the creation of the Statue of Liberty. Even things people believe to be true—like the notion that the statue was a gift from France—are wrong. In fact, Liberty was the brainchild of a single French sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), who, against all odds, conceived the project, raised most of the funds, and ultimately built his masterpiece.
In the book “Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty” (Atlantic Monthly Press), author Elizabeth Mitchell tells the definitive story of the Statue of Liberty. And in the following Failure Interview, Mitchell reveals the inspiration for the statue and how Lady Liberty might have found a home in Boston or Philadelphia, among many other fascinating tidbits.
Why are Americans under the impression that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from the French government?
It has become a convenient shorthand because the true story is so much more complex, and it doesn’t sound quite so patriotic to say that a lone artist from France came and pitched this warmed-over idea to us and got it made. The other thing is that at one point Bartholdi very intentionally said that France wanted to give the statue to the U.S., and glossed over the idea that Americans were going to have to raise as much money [as the French]—or more. And that it wasn’t that the French government was planning to give it, it was going to have to be something that he convinced the French people to do.
What was Bartholdi’s inspiration?
He had gone to Egypt and had seen the pyramids and the Great Sphinx and was overwhelmed by how you could have these things that seemed to last for eternity. Bartholdi had a lot of flux in his life. He lost his father when he was two years old, and a brother who had the same name died at an early age. And he saw his country being rocked by revolution. Seeing something that seemed to be able to weather wind and sand and everything else was exciting to him.
I understand he originally envisioned a slave woman standing at the entrance to the Suez Canal?
First he had the idea that he wanted to create a colossus. Then he tried to find the appropriate place and appropriate idea for it. Egypt was his first choice. Bartholdi liked the grandiosity of the idea and thought it would be great if he could build a lighthouse welcoming people into the Suez Canal. It would be a slave woman holding up a torch—and Egypt bringing the light of progress to Asia.
Why did he fail to win the commission?
It’s not absolutely clear but I have some theories based on the evidence. He went to Egypt and pitched the statue, but the khedive [viceroy of Egypt] was not very excited by it. The khedive ended up building a lighthouse that was made of concrete, which was the most modern material at the time. Bartholdi’s model must have looked old-fashioned. Even then the idea of a robed figure holding up a lantern was considered a bit of a throwback.
Why did Bartholdi pitch a statue to the U.S., a country he had never visited?
That’s true. He had never been to the U.S. He had to weather the Franco-Prussian War, and just as his part of France [Alsace] was given away to the Prussians in the treaty that ended the war, he had to decide whether to stay and become a German citizen or go back to Paris where he had his studio. In the time period when Bartholdi was scheming to go to America to pitch his statue, ten thousand people were slaughtered in the streets of Paris. There was carnage all around and he wasn’t in a position to build something enormous. Also, there weren’t many places that had the kind of capital and grandiosity that America did. There were a lot of big projects in the works including Central Park and [Brooklyn’s] Prospect Park and he thought those might be good locations for the statute. He also knew some intellectuals in France who were very interested in America, particularly Edouard Laboulaye—a jurist who had written numerous books about America. Laboulaye wrote letters of introduction for Bartholdi and that’s why he went over to the U.S. He thought it might be a place that could absorb the idea.
How close did America come to having the Statue of Liberty in Central Park? Philadelphia? Boston?
In terms of Central Park, Bartholdi said in his diary that he was going to scout locations: Central Park, Prospect Park, Battery Park…. It seems that the thing that protected us from having that happen was that [Frederick Law] Olmsted and [Calvert] Vaux—who were designing [Central Park]—seemed to be very wary. In Bartholdi’s diary he recalls trying to meet with them and notes that they seem suspicious. One could imagine they knew it would be extremely spooky to have a statue of that size in Central Park, and they wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to get any support for it.
In terms of Philadelphia and Boston, it definitely could have gone there at various points but Bartholdi wanted it in New York so when he was drumming up support in those places it was to spark the rivalry between cities. He knew that if New York got wind that Philadelphia wanted the statue they would do anything to have it, even if they didn’t like it very much.
How did Bartholdi raise the money? It was like a nineteenth-century Kickstarter project.
Yes, very much so. In France, which is where he started his fundraising, there was one big dinner that was very successful. But after that the funding dried up. First he tried to get people to buy subscriptions, which was the way people raised money for statues. One would give money with the idea that you wanted to—in this case—commemorate liberty and the relationship between the two countries. But people weren’t taken with that idea, either.
Fairly soon he realized he had to offer people value for their donation, mainly in the form of entertainment—concerts and things like that. In Paris, after they erected the whole statue [without the pedestal] to test the design, he started selling tickets for people to go all the way up into the head. Then in America, Bartholdi tried a similar thing when he had the hand and the torch in Philadelphia at the world exposition in 1876. He charged people to go up and look out over Fairmount Park.
But his main fundraising happened through the support of newspaper owner Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer had purchased the World and was trying to turn it into a powerhouse. He positioned the paper as the little man versus the wealthy of New York, and as the voice of the little man [the paper said], “We must raise the money! The World is the people’s paper…. Let us not wait for the millionaires to give this money.” Everyone who gave a penny, their name would go in the newspaper, and that became extremely popular because people wanted to see their name in the paper. He raised funds for the statue but also built circulation exponentially.
Once installed, how did Americans react to the statue?
Just days before the unveiling everyone was given a day off from work and there was a huge parade. And with thirty-thousand people marching through the streets excitement went through the roof. Bartholdi briefly became a celebrity in America. After the unveiling he went to Niagara Falls for a visit and his train kept getting stopped along the way because people wanted to get a glimpse of him.
But six months after it was unveiled a reporter wrote an article about how people had forgotten about it—and that not many people were going out to see it. It was the attachment of immigrants seeing the statue that got it re-ignited as something to be extremely excited about it. Now you go and boats are packed and the whole world seems to be visiting the statue.
How has Liberty maintained its structural integrity for so long?
It’s incredible if you think about it. If you’re responsible for even a shed you know that weather is constantly trying to put things back to dust. The statue was in really bad shape when Lee Iacocca came along with a scheme in the 1980s to revive it. They had to scour the metal and replace pieces that were missing. And when it was installed the arm was positioned sixteen inches off so the arm was always very unstable. Over the years they tried to keep correcting that. It was during the Iacocca renovation that they were able to get it much more stable. People still can’t go up into the arm but it’s not going to fall off.
Has Liberty always been green?
No, and one of the weirdest things in all my research is that I never came across anything where people predicted it would turn that color, which they should have been able to predict. It was around for forty years before it was really green. But the lighter color meant that it could reflect light better. Back when it was the dark copper color no one could see it at night.
Did the Statue of Liberty make Bartholdi a financial success?
It’s not one of those stories where there are all these naysayers and then he creates this beloved work and he is wealthy and happy. He was still struggling afterwards. Even after he had the statue in place he still had to pitch his ideas. Even at the time, people noted that most sculptors of his stature wouldn’t have to go pitch themselves. They would just be given a commission. So while he didn’t end up in absolute poverty, he was still taking students long into his career and even in the days before he took to his deathbed he was pitching and designing statues.
But he was very happy with the way the Statue of Liberty turned out. He didn’t have any problems with its final construction except he wanted to do a little more on the landscaping. It fulfilled his vision of what he wanted it to be. It’s a good symbol of what we are supposed to stand for. You can put it on a poster and everyone knows right away what you are referring to. But his life didn’t turn into a raving success because of it.
Bartholdi’s name isn’t well remembered. I’m from New York and until reading your book I wouldn’t have been able to name him. How do you think he would feel about his legacy, or lack thereof?
It is interesting because he did want fame and did want to be beloved. When it was being pitched and when it was under construction it was referred to as the Bartholdi statue. No one was calling it the Statue of Liberty early on. But shortly after it was inaugurated his name vanished from the project. The reflective part of him would have realized that he got what he wanted, which was something that was going to last long after he did, even if his name was not attached to it. But there was definitely a more ego-driven part of him that would be shocked that no one knows who he is. When I saw his diary I was looking at it like: this is the artist who was assigned to make the statue. I was shocked to realize that it was his concept, his vision, and his battle to make the thing happen.
10 Things You Didn't Know About the Statue of Liberty