Mar 28, 2018

Statue of Liberty: Gift ... Or Scam?

Talking during a movie is usually frowned upon, but sometimes a well-timed quip can add to the entertainment. Such was the case during a viewing of Independence Day in 1990. Aliens had just blown up several US monuments. When they obliterated the Statue of Liberty, the theater went silent for a moment and my dad blurted out: “Hey! That was a gift!” Laughter filled the theater.

My dad's recent retelling of that tale recently made me snicker (again), and then it reminded me of the true story behind our most famous monument. Legend has it the French gave the statue to the US as a gift and symbol of friendship. The real story is more interesting. Parade magazine has the shortest retelling. My even shorter summary follows.

The designer of the Statue of Liberty, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, did not originally design the statue for America. It's a colossus because it was designed for Egypt (think the Sphinx), and it was meant to be a lighthouse for the Suez Canal. What's ironic is that Lady Liberty is actually a slave girl. The loose-fitting dress she wears is that of a fellah, or Egyptian slave.

When the Egypt deal fell through, Bartholdi repurposed the idea for America. To raise government money for the project, he traveled all over our nation, visiting Washington D.C., Chicago, LA and Niagara Falls among other places. When that didn't work, he went the P.T. Barnum route back home and raised money from the public itself. "He put on spectacles of wonder in Paris, charged visitors admission to watch the statue’s construction in a dusty workshop, sold souvenirs, and petitioned the French government to let him run a national lottery," according to Parade. However, he was still short and needed funding from America.

Enter Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper magnate for whom the Pulitzer Prize is named. Pulitzer took on the challenge and concocted a brilliant marketing ploy to raise money and boost his newspaper circulation. He promised to print the name of every person who made even the tiniest donation toward the project. This ultimately closed the gap and also gave people a great reason to buy Pultizer's newspaper.

The Parade article has some other fascinating details. Taken together, they not only correct the myth that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from the French government but also make the whole thing sound an awful lot like a scam. Women's rights groups certainly felt that way. "When it was unveiled in October 1886 ... [they] lamented that an enormous female figure would stand in New York harbor representing liberty, when most American women had no liberty to vote," Parade recounts.