I watched the Ken Burns documentary on the Statue of Liberty this week on PBS. It was a complex film that showed all the ironies in the both the building of the statue and the shifting meaning attached to it. The idea of the Statue of Liberty actually was fostered as a gesture of ongoing friendship between the French and American people forged during the American Revolution – there was no original homage to immigrants or emphasis on “land of the free.” Sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was commissioned to design a sculpture in time for the 1876 Centennial celebration of the American Declaration of Independence. However the film indicates it was the ensuing struggles in fundraising that ultimately made it a populist, not an elitist effort and expanded its meaning
Only after the project was well underway did the French ultimately determine that they should only be required to raise the money to build and ship the Statue to America, while the pedestal needed to be financed by U.S. citizens. In the end, it was bullying by the New York newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer in the pages of “The World” that successfully motivated citizens from every class to chip in whatever they could afford to get the project completed. Pulitzer lashed out equally at the rich and the middle class and finally shamed everyone into contributing the necessary funds, allowing the statue to finally go up, although delays on both ends meant it was finally dedicated in 1886, ten years after the Centennial.
Over the ensuring years, the Statue of Liberty, with its proximity to Ellis Island, gradually became a symbol of America’s welcome to immigrants from nations around the world and the torch transformed into a beacon of hope for freedom from oppression. In part, that shift was inspired by a sonnet written by Emma Lazarus for one of the fundraisers for the pedestal, but not memorialized with a plaque until the early 1900’s, after her death. The poem includes the famous lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teaming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
So on this 4th of July, why not celebrate the original signing of the Declaration of Independence, the ongoing beauty and powerful symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, and the current challenge we face to reinvent the spirit of our founding fathers. As we increasingly become a land of entrepreneurs, we can find new solutions to making it a better world for everyone in the next generation. It’s the American way.