Lady Liberty's contentious past

Not everyone thought the statue was a good idea

Created date

November 29th, 2017
The Statue of Liberty being built in France.

The Statue of Liberty being built in France.

An intense debate about public statues has erupted across the nation. Does a town square statue of a Confederate general belong in the twenty-first century? If we are to learn from history, is it wrong to remove icons of a past age? Is it fair to judge our forefathers through the prism of modern-day values?

As the debate wages on, the most American of statues stands far above the fray. At 305’ 1”, Liberty Enlightening the World, better known as the Statue of Liberty, is the nation’s largest and most beloved of statues. Since its dedication on Oct. 28, 1886, Lady Liberty has been a beacon for millions of immigrants seeking a better life and a symbol of what makes America the greatest democracy in world history. 

While no one suggests dismantling Lady Liberty, her history was as controversial and contentious as any of today’s statue debates. 

The money

In 1865, Édouard René de Laboulaye, leader of the French Anti-Slavery Society and Frédéric Bartholdi, a staunch abolitionist and sculptor, wanted to honor the outcome of the American Civil War and commemorate President Lincoln. The men envisioned a colossal statue designed by Bartholdi and presented to the U.S. as a gift from the people of France. 

France would build and pay for the statue and America would build and pay for the pedestal on which the statue stands. On both sides of the Atlantic, the funds would come from people, not governments.  

While there were some who questioned the expense, the French people generally supported the project. It took five years to raise the necessary funds.

The U.S. fundraising campaign was more problematic. In 1877, the statue was an unpopular idea. Newspaper editorials scoffed at the effort. What kind of a “gift” demands raising $300,000 (over $7 million in 2017)?

This was before the age of philanthropy, so wealthy families like the Vanderbilts and the Astors declined requests to donate to the fund. 

People outside of the New York area saw no reason to contribute to a project that “embellished” Manhattan. 

In early 1885, they were still over $100,000 short of their goal. 

The entire project was in jeopardy until newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer took action with an editorial promising to publish the name of every donor in his paper the New York World. Contributions started pouring in and Pulitzer continued beating the drum with daily editorials about the fundraising efforts.

On August 11, 1885, the World’s headline was “ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS.” It ran alongside a cartoon of the statue waving an American flag in one hand and holding a wad of cash in the other. 


At the Bedloe’s Island unveiling of the great statue, President Grover Cleveland saluted Bartholdi, calling him “the greatest man in America today.”

Among the dignitaries invited to the high-profile ceremony, only two were female. 

This infuriated the Women’s Suffrage Association, which then chartered a boat to circle the island during the festivities. As they sailed past the ceremony, the women made loud speeches applauding the statue’s gender while denouncing laws that denied women the right to vote.


The impetus of the statue was to celebrate the abolition of slavery. Early sketches had Lady Liberty holding a broken chain, symbolically breaking free from the bonds of slavery. 

Bartholdi feared the symbolism was too sensitive a subject so soon after the Civil War. In the final version, a broken chain lies near the statue’s left foot, but it’s a detail that can only be seen from certain vantage points and otherwise goes unnoticed. 

For African-Americans, the statue represented a liberty they did not experience. An 1886 editorial in the Cleveland Gazette, a black-owned newspaper put it this way: “Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all into the ocean until the ‘liberty’ of this country is such as to make it possible for an industrious and inoffensive colored man in the South to earn a respectable living for himself and family…”

A century later, in the 1986 Ken Burns series America, African-American author James Baldwin called the statue “a very bitter joke, meaning nothing to us.”


Soon after the statue was dedicated, America saw a boom in immigration. Sailing past Lady Liberty on their way to Ellis Island, immigrants embraced her as a symbol of their new freedom. 

From inside the country, it was a different story. The huge influx of newcomers led to a wave of xenophobia, and the statue came to represent the inundation of foreigners who threatened the American way of life.

Not until the 1930s, when immigration dropped significantly, did Americans come to view the statue as a positive representation of immigration.

As author Edward Berenson says in his fascinating history The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story (Yale University Press, 2012), “One of the statue’s most startling qualities has been to change its apparent meaning from one decade or generation to the next and even to represent all at once, several opposing qualities: liberty and subjection; immigration and xenophobia; the lure of America and its dangerous shoals; a future of hope and a past of despair; and of course, Franco-American friendship and French-American distaste.”