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Statue of Liberty: The Making of an Icon

May 14, 2019 in History

By Patrick J. Kiger

It took grassroots efforts to raise the funds and ultimately build the colossal monument in New York Harbor that has come to symbolize freedom around the world.

The Emma Lazarus wrote a poem, “The New Colossus,” which was read at a fundraising art exhibition in 1883. (Two decades later, it was inscribed on a bronze plaque on the inner wall of the pedestal.) Lazurus’ stirring plea to “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” helped to make the statue more than just a celebration of American democracy, by linking it with the waves of immigrants arriving in America in the late 1800s, and their aspirations for a better life.

Men in a workshop hammering sheets of copper for the construction of the Statue of Liberty, circa 1883.

“Laboulaye uses America as a symbol of good things. He sees Bartoli as the tool by which he can achieve his aim of giving a gift,” Barry Moreno, historian and curator for the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, says in the “Raising the Torch” podcast.

When even those heroic fundraising efforts weren’t enough, Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the tabloid New York World, came to the project’s rescue. Pulitzer ran a March 1885 article in his newspaper, which prodded readers into contributing more money for the base by pointing out that the statue itself had been paid for by “the masses of the French people—by the working men, the tradesmen, the shop girls, the artisans—by all, irrespective of class or condition.” Americans had to do their part as well, Pulitzer exhorted, and it worked. The newspaper was able to raise $100,000 to complete the project, most of it in donations of $1 or less.

But while the campaign to finish the pedestal—in some ways, an early version of today’s GoFundMe campaigns—required hustle, it ultimately helped Americans to feel a sense of ownership and connection to the statue, even though it had been created on the other side of the Atlantic.

As Magnuson-Cannady, supervising ranger for the National Park Service tells the “Raising the Torch” podcast, “The Statue of Liberty was really of the people in that the people of the United States and the people of France…not the super wealthy, not the super powerful—it was everyday folks contributing to the fundraising efforts and paying for the Statue of Liberty and the pedestal.”

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