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The Statue of Liberty – America’s noble symbol

Posted in America, Art, Famous landmarks, Historical articles on Thursday, 1 December 2011

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This edited article about America originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 864 published on  5 August  1978.

Statue of Liberty, picture, image, illustration

The Statue of Liberty by Harry Green

Few travellers forget their first glimpse of the colossal, 92 metre high statue that is listed officially as “Liberty enlightening the World” but is known everywhere else as simply the Statue of Liberty. As a work of art it is no masterpiece, but this is nevertheless easily the most famous statue in the world.

For millions of immigrants about the turn of the century, just to set eyes on the Statue of Liberty was the fulfilment of a lifetime’s ambition, and even today it gives the most hardened tourist a special kind of thrill.

Surprisingly, this most American of monuments is not American at all, but French. It was at the time of the centenary of American Independence that the people of France decided that they wished to commemorate not only the founding of the United States but also the friendship that had always existed between the two countries, each of which had overthrown its rulers at about the same time and become a free republic.

A sculptor from Alsace, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, was commissioned to design the figure, and before starting work he went to New York in order to find a suitable site. His choice was Bedloe’s Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan, a tiny piece of land that had once formed the base for old Fort Wood.

Bartholdi was not an artist of outstanding genius, and even today his reputation relies largely on a fine war memorial at Belfort, in France, known as the “Lion of Belfort”. Certainly his idea of showing Liberty as a woman with a torch held high and with broken chains about her feet does not strike us today as being original or imaginative. But the authorities approved the design and Bartholdi started work.

Even without its pedestal the statue was on a huge scale, 46 metres from Liberty’s feet to the flame of her torch. Bartholdi worked in copper, and his figure consisted of more than 300 sheets, each one .22 cm thick. Such thin metal could not possibly take the stresses of so large a figure, so France’s greatest bridge builder, Gustave Eiffel was called in to construct the iron and steel framework over which the copper plates would be fastened. Eiffel, who was to become a household name as builder of the French capital’s famous tower, carried out his part of the work brilliantly, and the statue was erected on a granite and concrete pedestal and dedicated on 28th October, 1886.

Although by an artist’s standards the Statue of Liberty may be a disappointment, its simple message was one that could hardly have been bettered. It towered over the immigrant ships as they entered New York harbour, and it must have given hope and confidence to the thousands of men and women for whom it was a first glimpse of the New World.

From the 1850s until World War I, the United States’ willingness to accept enormous numbers of settlers from Europe accounted for one of the greatest social migrations of all time. America, of course, was a vast country and desperately in need of manpower to release its natural wealth. It needed farmers to grow crops on the endless prairies, just as it needed miners to dig out its huge deposits of coal. And such was the state of most of Europe in the 19th century that there were almost limitless families ready and eager to leave their old homes and make a fresh start on the other side of the Atlantic.

Poverty was the reason for abandoning the past, and certainly this was the case during the terrible potato famine in Ireland. Many families had no alternative but to sail for America if they were not to starve. Much the same situation existed in the desperately poor areas of southern Italy. There it was the custom for one member of the family to save up the ten dollars needed for the fare and the 25 dollars “living money”. He would then set off for America, and once there would send home every cent he could spare until the rest of the family could join him.

Those who did not abandon Europe for reasons of poverty did so to avoid religious persecution, and hundreds of thousands of German and Russian Jews carried their skills to the United States in exchange for the right to worship as they pleased. And yet the fact that a man had obtained an extra permit from his own country and paid for his passage did not mean that he would automatically be allowed into the country of his choice. He might stare hopefully at the Statue of Liberty, but if he did not satisfy the officials he might well sail past it for a second time, on the way back to Europe.

Until 1892 immigrants applied for entry at Castle Garden, on Manhattan, but the sheer weight of numbers made it vital to find somewhere that was more isolated. Quite often as many as 15,000 men, women and children were waiting on board their ships for permission to land, and eventually offices were set up on Ellis Island, where harassed officials were soon coping with anything up to 8,000 people a day.

It cannot have been an easy task, questioning frightened, worried immigrants whose only language might well be Latvian or Serbo-Croat, but if they were fit they were usually allowed in and only those seriously ill were sent back. During the first 20 years of this century, an unbelievable 14 million people sailed past the Statue in search of American citizenship.

Today, the United States admits few immigrants, but visitors still head for Bedloe’s Island in order to study the Statue of Liberty at close quarters. Officially, Bedloe’s Island has been Liberty Island since 1960, but for many the old name sticks. The statue has been listed as a national monument since 1924, and visitors are allowed to climb up the iron spiral staircase inside the figure and look out over the harbour from the observation platform in Liberty’s coronet. It is a curiously eerie experience climbing up the hollow statue, and on warm days a stiflingly hot one.

Inside the pedestal there is a bronze plaque on which is engraved a sonnet by an American poet, Emma Lazarus, and its last five lines have become world-famous:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your wretched masses yearning to be free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send them, the homeless, tempest tossed to me,

I light the lamp beside the golden door!

The huddled masses who sailed into New York harbour beneath the shadow of the Statue of Liberty saw in it a promise of individual freedom and a better life.

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