The story of the Statue of Liberty

September 22, 2012

The Statue Of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story
By Edward Berenson
Yale University Press, 2012,
229 pages , $35.95 (hb)

“We are the keepers of the flame of liberty,” said then-US president Ronald Reagan, opening the centennial celebration in 1986 of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour. Reagan claimed the statue as an American beacon of freedom to the world.

As Edward Berenson shows, however, the statue’s political virtue had been compromised long before Reagan’s neo-conservative hypocrisy.

The French creators who gifted the statue to America in 1886 — Edouard Laboulaye (legal scholar), Frederic Bartholdi (architect) and Gustave Eiffel (engineer) — were “centrist liberals”. Although civil libertarians and anti-slavery abolitionists, they opposed the progressive republicans, democrats and socialists to their left.

The statue they built in Paris and shipped to New York was intended as a reminder of the financial and military debt that the American revolutionary War of Independence owed to the French revolution, with an expected return of US trade and diplomatic favours to France as quid pro quo.

In both American and French anti-monarchical revolutions, however, the spoils had gone to the republican bourgeoisies. The statue’s French creators were class allies of this wealthy elite, very much committed to the liberty, and power, of this elite.

They reassured their American counterparts, who were expected to raise the funds for the statue’s pedestal, that the statue represented a liberty of free enterprise, “not that Liberty who, wearing a red bonnet and carrying a pike, marches over a field of dead bodies”.

Not for the statue’s respectable republicans in France the radical democracy of the lower orders in the 1871 Paris Commune, which had so inspired Karl Marx and terrified French, and American, capitalists.

Nor was the statue to reflect artistic allusions to the revolutionary Goddesses of Liberty, which flourished during the French revolutions of 1792, 1830 and 1848. The Statue would be demure, of placid expression, fully clothed and smashing no chains.

Many Americans saw through the statue’s public veneer of liberty and emancipation.

Suffragists disrupted the opening ceremony from a chartered boat denouncing the hypocrisy of “erecting a Statue of Liberty embodied as a woman in a land where no woman has political liberty”.

African-Americans saw little reason to celebrate — the statue would not end their discrimination and segregation, nor the lynching epidemic during the 1890s when 1200 were murdered in acts of vigilante justice.

Workers could expect no liberation from unemployment (running at 16%) and poverty (40%) from a copper-clad monument.

Aspirant migrants, screened out from the “land of the free” if they hailed from southern and eastern Europe (“diseased”, “troublemakers”, refusing to “assimilate”, “taking the jobs of Americans”), confronted the cold stare of xenophobia not the warm welcome to “your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to be free”.

Liberty in capitalist America meant freedom for the rich, not the poor.

The writer Mark Twain found nothing to celebrate 100 years earlier. He wanted a statue “old, bent, clothed in rags, downcast, shame-faced” so it could represent the “insults and humiliation the principles of liberty have faced over the past six thousand years”.

Since then, the statue has been a protest site for many who deplore the failure of the US to live up to its proclaimed liberal ideals whilst mouthing a hypocritical rhetoric of freedom.

This official oratory now includes the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of US “freedom and anti-terrorism”, a development which testifies to the “power of liberty as a universal ideal”, says a smitten Berenson.

Berenson's admirable academic objectivity sadly, but not surprisingly for a political liberal, deserts him the closer history comes to today and when liberty needs much more than a corporate-sponsored sculpture of elite class origins.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.