Instead of imploring the world to “give me your tired, your poor”, the Statue of Liberty’s welcoming message might well have been “as-salamu alaykum”, the Arabic greeting used by Muslims around the world.
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That’s right, the world’s most recognized symbol of freedom and the American dream, was originally intended for Egypt, which ultimately rejected it for being too old fashioned.
The decision came as a disappointment to Lady Liberty’s creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who’d envisioned the Suez Canal as the ideal venue for his mammoth harbor structure.
“He was inspired by the Sphinx and the pyramids and the idea you could create something massive that could almost be eternal,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, who brings Bartholdi’s quest to life in her book Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty.
Mitchell was motivated to write the book after coming across Bartholdi’s diaries at the New York City Public Library. That’s when she first realized the iconic symbol wasn’t a gift from France as many Americans believe.
“In fact, the true story is more moving because what you have is this individual artist who had a vision and he really wanted to make this happen,” Mitchell said, “and he really had to go through every machination to get this thing built.”
After his failure in Egypt, the artist shifted his attention to America, which was prospering after the end of the Civil War.
“Maybe no other country at the time would understand the excitement and importance of having this bigger-than-life, colossal symbol,” Mitchell said.
The Statue of Liberty has stood in New York’s harbor for 128 years, since 1886. In order to secure her spot there, Bartholdi worked hard to promote his statue concept. To help with fundraising, he put parts of the statue on display and charged admission. The arm and torch were exhibited in Philadelphia in 1876 and the head in Paris in 1878.
“He wanted something astounding. He wanted to create one of those things that amazed fellow humans,” said Mitchell. “He definitely wanted to commemorate the idea of liberty and what that meant, and keep that as a reminder in the world of what a government comprised of individuals could do in the world.”
Americans had to raise more money than the French to bring the statue to New York. Newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer championed the cause by offering to publish the name of every person who donated even a dollar to the effort.
Bartholdi, who saw his statue as a way to remind Americans how much the French had sacrificed during the Revolutionary War, believed the strong bond between the two countries would endure, according to Mitchell.
No one knows who Bartholdi modeled Lady Liberty after and the artist himself never said. But Mitchell believes her strong-boned face, and its troubled expression, were modeled after Bartholdi’s beloved but mentally disturbed brother, who ended up in an insane asylum.
“In all of Bartholdi’s public works, he always used the faces of people he knew and loved,” Mitchell said. “It makes sense to use a troubled face because he didn’t see liberty as something that would be won easily.”
Bartholdi did worry that American commercialism would sully his statue’s reputation.
“He worried that all Americans cared about was money,” said Mitchell, “that they didn’t have a higher value than that.”
Bartholdi even copyrighted the statue’s image, so that he would be paid every time someone used an image of his creation, but he ultimately found it too difficult to enforce.
His quest to build the Statue of Liberty was not easy or fast.
Bartholdi arrived in the United States with his Statue of Liberty proposition in 1871 but it wasn’t until 1886 that the completed statue was officially unveiled in its current New York location. Despite those 15 years of challenges and setbacks, Bartholdi stayed focused and never questioned his mission.
“He never doubted his project was a good one,” Mitchell said. “He believed that the statue would be very important one day.”
In that prediction, Bartholdi proved to be a true visionary. Today, Liberty Island is one of New York’s most popular attractions, drawing more than 3 million visitors a year and his creation has become one of America’s most enduring symbols of liberty and freedom.