B. K. Marcus
Was the Statue of Liberty a gift from the people of France? That’s the official story, even more than a century later. The statue, which was dedicated in 1886, is maintained by the National Park Service, whose website makes the claim so many of us learned in school: “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World was a gift of friendship from the people of France to the people of the United States.”
But how can “the people of France” give anything to anyone?
For most of my life, I assumed the statue was a gift from the French government to the American government. Haven’t we been conditioned to hear “the people” and understand instead “the State”? And didn’t this gift to “the people of the United States” end up in the hands of the U.S. government? I always figured there was a national government on both the giving and receiving ends.
But the Statue of Liberty was a private project. The designer was not a fan of the American people, nor was he particularly devoted to the idea of liberty: “The Americans believe that it is Liberty that illumines the world, but, in reality, it is my genius.”
Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi wanted wealth and world renown for building a celebrated colossus, and he was willing to shop the idea around—even to the era’s most illiberal customers.
His first pitch for a giant, torch-bearing statue was to the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, which was, at the time, the single greatest commercial conduit for the international slave trade.
The statue that now stands in New York Harbor is officially called “Liberty Enlightening the World” (La Liberté éclairant le monde). The statue in Egypt was to be called “Egypt Enlightening the World” or, more awkwardly, “Progress Carrying the Light to Asia.”
Failing to close the deal in Egypt, Bartholdi repackaged it for America.
(For the rest of this amazing story, click the link.)