So why does its meaning seem so unstable, especially now, as a small-scale copy makes its way from France to D.C., where it will be installed at the French ambassador’s residence later this month? You could say that the answer is — and isn’t — all around us.
Try looking for Lady Liberty at an exhibition of Chicano graphic art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, for example, where familiar images — flags, maps, military recruiting posters — are repurposed. You will find the statue almost or entirely absent. Maybe that’s because, compared with other icons of national identity, it is ambiguous and ambivalent. As familiar to some Americans as the flag, the statue is just as meaningless or foreign to others, a sign without significance, or worse, a symbol of hypocrisy or unfulfilled promises.
A quick study of the statue’s complex history of shifting meanings suggests this shouldn’t be surprising. Before she lifted her torch in welcome to immigrants, Liberty signified the triumph of abolition — though the design of the statue was altered, perhaps to ensure it not be too radical a sign of racial reconciliation. After the great age of immigration had passed, politicians, including President Ronald Reagan, helped shift the meaning again, to a nationalist icon of America as a Cold War beacon to the free world. And later, she served as a marker of resilience for New Yorkers scarred by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Like so many symbols, especially ones associated with national identity, these meanings have overlapped, morphed and risen and fallen in relative importance over the more than 130 years it has sat in New York Harbor.
On July 14, one of the earliest of its intended meanings — as a sign of friendship between the United States and France — will be stressed when the French ambassador to the United States, Philippe Étienne, celebrates the installation of a nine-foot bronze reproduction (the original copper structure designed by sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi is just over 150 feet tall) on the grounds of the diplomatic residence in Washington. Using 3-D scans of the 1878 plaster model created by Bartholdi, the reproduction sat for a decade outside the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Paris. It will be installed in front of the ambassador’s residence, on long-term loan, and will be visible to passersby in the Kalorama neighborhood of Northwest D.C.
“This idea was very appealing to me because it is such a powerful symbol of the friendship between the French and American people,” Étienne says. “And, of course, of the ideas of liberty and freedom, which are always fragile, as we have seen a number of times recently.”
That fragility is seen not just in direct attacks such as the coordinated terrorist strikes in Paris in 2015, and the 9/11 assault on New York, but the continuing efforts by populists and demagogues in both countries to leverage issues of race and immigration against liberal democracies. Indeed, if the statue has had any kind of stable meaning over its lifetime, it is not as a symbol of liberty, but as a symbol of the misuse of liberty — as a hollow promise, unequally distributed and limited in its application to certain groups.
And so it’s not a surprise that the statue would mostly be absent in an exhibition about the iconography of Chicano artists, and missing from the visual culture of other groups whose history of immigration didn’t begin in European countries and flow through Ellis Island in New York Harbor.
“I was looking at a Black newspaper from 1915,” says Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in a recent telephone interview. “It said that while everybody was excited by the statue, it has turned its back on America.” The statue’s position and alignment makes this literally true; and its association primarily with European immigration has made it figuratively true, as well, for many Americans.
Even as Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem “The New Colossus” became increasingly identified with the statue and with an ideal of America as a welcoming nation in the early decades of the 20th century, many African Americans were less than enchanted by a dream that didn’t seem to include them. Nor was it extended to Native Americans, on whose land the statue sits.
“The new immigrants were often seen as better than Black Americans,” Bunch says. The idea of America’s warm embrace of the outsider, and the popular metaphor of the melting pot, didn’t seem to include Black Americans, whose history, including centuries of enslavement, dated in many cases back to the first decades of the 17th century.
The design of the statue almost seems to have encoded that ambivalence to race and inclusion. The standard narrative of its origins — likely a mix of truth and backward projection years after the fact — begins with a dinner party in 1865 that included not only the artist, Bartholdi, and the historian and anti-slavery activist Édouard-René de Laboulaye, but Oscar de Lafayette, a grandson of the Marquis de Lafayette — a military officer who commanded American troops in the Revolutionary War — and Hippolyte de Tocqueville, the brother of Alexis de Tocqueville, author of “Democracy in America.” Together, they sought a gesture to mark the end of the Civil War, the freeing of enslaved people, the assassination of Lincoln and a goad to their own country, then an empire ruled by Napoleon’s nephew, who had seized power in an 1851 coup. Conservative supporters of Napoleon III had sympathized with the South during the American Civil War, an offense to American-French relations these men hoped, in part, to repair.
But by the time the statue began to take form in the 1870s, the United States was in the age of Reconstruction, which was too radical a vision of racial equality for the abolitionist Laboulaye. Early in the 1870s, he recommended to Bartholdi a key change to one of the statue’s symbols — broken chains, symbolizing the end of slavery, held in the statue’s left hand — which became a tablet with the date July 4, 1776, in Roman numerals. Abolition and slavery were de-emphasized.
“They were thrilled by the end of slavery, but that is a form of symbolism that didn’t outlast the end of Reconstruction,” says New York University professor Edward Berenson, author of “The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story.” “That part of the statue’s meaning has disappeared and it hasn’t really come back.”
Disappearance and rejection are recurring themes. Early design ideas suggested a figure who looked more Egyptian than classical Greek or Roman, with a draping headdress rather than the seven-pointed crown she now wears (the crown may be part of a program of Masonic symbolism hiding in plain sight). Little popular memory remains of the statue’s early detractors, including the Roman Catholic clergy, who decried the use of a classical goddess to represent liberty, including on U.S. money. “She is to remain on our coins, and the gigantic bronze figure will soon tower on the little island in the beautiful bay of New York,” wrote the American Catholic Quarterly Review in 1880. “Holding her torch to proclaim that mankind receives true light, not from Christ and Christianity, but from heathenism and its gods.”
The ironies and blind spots pile up. Liberty was depicted as a woman, at a time when women didn’t have the right to vote. In 1882, the United States passed the nakedly racist Chinese Exclusion Act; a year later, construction of the base of the statue began with Chinese laborers among the workforce. The idea of the statue was associated with the 100th anniversary of the revolution that brought American independence. But Bartholdi created a sedate, classicizing and mostly sexless figure, not the radical revolutionary icon of liberty known in France as Marianne (the bare-chested woman seen in Delacroix’s 1830 painting, “Liberty Leading the People).”
I remember yet another moment of dissonance, from the day in 1986 when Reagan celebrated the renovation of the statue with a bland speech about liberty, complete with bombastic music and a relighting spectacle. Only days before, the Supreme Court had issued its decision in a case called Bowers v. Hardwick, which held that states could criminalize same-sex activity without violating the constitution. The week’s newspapers contained both stories, beautiful, choreographed imagery of the president with liberty in the background, and excerpts of a legal opinion that held a law targeted at LGBT people was justifiable because it was based on “millennia of moral teaching.”
I remember thinking, at the time, that a statue that held little meaning to me was suddenly meaningful in a very particular way: I could reject it. “This is your symbol, not mine,” I said, repeating if not the exact words at least sentiments similar to those others had no doubt felt since the beginning of the republic.
It may well be that there is more genuine liberty embodied in the rejection of a symbol than the acceptance of it. And that raises a curious question about the United States: Why are we so obsessed not just with national symbols, but with the utterly unlikely prospect that we will all accept and honor these symbols in exactly the same way?
The installation of the smaller statue of liberty in Washington comes at a complex moment for both France and the United States. In a panel discussion last month, as the statue was making its transatlantic voyage, historian Pap Ndiaye, the director of the National Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris, noted that despite its French origins, there is no equivalent in France to the Statue of Liberty. Despite a history of immigrations — including French people from Africa and French colonies who migrated to the United States during the age of Jim Crow because they believed the United States represented freedom from colonial oppression — France has no statue that symbolizes a welcome to outsiders.
But it’s debatable if America does, either. The noble sentiments of the poem by Emma Lazarus — “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — were all but effaced in the past four years of strident and often violent anti-immigrant sentiment. Lazarus’s words are stirring, but they speak to a sense of American identity shared by only part of America. And often, that sentiment has more to do with a flattering sense of ourselves than our actual behavior.
But Étienne is too diplomatic not to see hope in the old symbol. “What I would like to be kept in mind, more than any other interpretation, is that this is the beginning, not the end of the story,” he says by phone from Paris, after a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and French President Emmanuel Macron.
“It is a symbol of opportunity and the meaning of a democracy, and despite all the imperfections, discrimination, injustice — which remain — we want to offer opportunities to all our citizens.”
I went to see the original statue last month. I didn’t go to the site itself — that’s for tourists — but I went to a pier on the west side of Manhattan and looked across the water to Liberty Island. The statue had never seemed so small.
She was dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the financial district and seemed almost inert compared with the bustle of cars and people on the waterfront. From that vantage point, one could think she was just nine-feet-tall, sized not for America but for a residential garden.