The Statue of Liberty, which has stood at the entrance to New York’s harbor for more than a century and a quarter, is chiefly the work of a French sculptor named Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who years before he began work on it is reported to have said, “When I discover a subject grand enough, I will honor that subject by building the tallest statue in the world.” That he indeed found the subject he was looking for, Elizabeth Mitchell reports, is mainly due to a commission he received in 1865 to do a bust of Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye, who was not merely “a famous French jurist and writer” but was also an ardent admirer of the United States who “adored America and its ideals, almost to the point of fetish.”

Bartholdi seems to have been given to both exaggeration and fabrication, but apparently there is at least a measure of truth in his claim that a dinner party held by Laboulaye in the conservatory of his residence provided the inspiration “to create the largest statue in the world.” At that party, Laboulaye spoke about the “community of thoughts” and “common aspirations” that bound France and the young republic across the Atlantic. “Speaking before his eminent guests in the conservatory,” Mitchell writes, “Laboulaye suggested that because of their dramatic common history, it would be likely, should there ever be a monument built as a memorial to America’s independence, that France and America would erect the monument together.”

Bartholdi himself seems to have had relatively little sense of grand mission. In an exploratory trip to the United States in 1871, he “revealed himself to be more an artist scouting the challenges and tastes of a potential client than a man enchanted by the nation and anxious to honor it.” He told Laboulaye that he admired “the institutions of the country, the patriotism, the sense of civic duty, the objectivity of the government,” but he disliked much of the architecture he saw and found American manners severely lacking. He especially disliked Washington, with its repellent food — “one eats all day — a great deal of green corn, with cabbage” — and various other disagreeable aspects: “Add to all this, dust, many negroes, bad pavements or none at all, plenty of sun and flies — and you have the city of Washington.”

He persisted despite these sentiments and a notable indifference toward his proposed project among many Americans with whom he spoke, few of whom showed the slightest interest in supporting it financially. Finding a site was also a challenge. New York City seemed to him the appropriate place, but he ruled out its parks and finally settled on an island in the harbor:

“It took fresh eyes to view the fourteen-acre Bedloe’s Island as promising for anything but oysters. Isaac Bedlow, a Dutchman, had acquired the island in 1667. It changed hands again before being bought for government use as a pesthouse and quarantine station in 1750. In 1814, federal authorities built the star-shaped Fort Wood there, housing three hundred men and seventy guns. For many years, it was the site of all federal executions. The last one had taken place on July 13, 1860, when an infamous pirate, Albert Hicks, was hanged for murdering a captain and two boys on an oyster ship. Boats crammed against the shore to get a glimpse. Anyone older than twenty in New York would have associated the island with such gory events.”

‘Liberty's Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty’ by Elizabeth Mitchell (Atlantic Monthly)

American indifference to the proposed statue remained widespread, even after Bartholdi fashioned the torch and hand by way of a preview of coming attractions and took them to Philadelphia in 1876 for the Centennial Exposition. The display was ridiculed by the New York Times, among others in the press, and not until December 1876 was Bartholdi able to set it up in Madison Square Park, thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted, the great landscape designer who was New York’s commissioner of parks at the time. There the display became “a long-standing advertisement for his project and its fundraising,” which finally took a turn for the better when Joseph Pulitzer, who took over the New York World in 1883, saw the statue as a circulation-builder for his struggling acquisition and excoriated New York’s millionaires editorially for their refusal to bankroll it. In 1885 the World declared: “We must raise the money! The World is the people’s paper. . . . Let us not wait for the millionaires to give this money. It is not the gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America.”

By August of that year the World had succeeded in raising $100,000 from, as it wrote, “the honorable rich as well as the poorest of the poor — from all parties, all sections, all ages, all sexes, all classes — from the cabinet member and the Union League member — from the poor news boys who sent their pennies, until the unprecedented number of 120,000 widely different contributors had joined in common spirit for a common cause.” Meanwhile Bartholdi plugged away at the statue in Paris, with help from the notable architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc and others, though a couple of problems remained. Viollet-le-Duc, who died in 1879, “left no strategy on how to put the statue on a pedestal and keep her upright against the wind and changing temperatures,” and Bartholdi “hadn’t the foggiest idea of how he was going to get Liberty to her feet.”

These problems were solved by Gustave Eiffel, the great engineer, who invented “a kind of tower, a pylon, with a single branch at the top that would support the upraised arm and torch. On Bedloe’s Island, that iron pylon would be riveted in four places to the foundation. The exterior copper skin would bear no weight, but would be attached to the frame like a flag to a flagpole. From a structural point of view, the statue’s shape would be superfluous. Eiffel’s creation would bear all the weight itself.”

There remained the financing and construction of the gigantic pedestal on which the statue would stand, a project that encountered what had by then become the predictable flurry of controversy and resistance to fundraising. Once again the World came to the rescue, reporting the failure of the fundraising committee and embarrassing them into enough action to get things moving once more.

The statue finally was dedicated on Oct. 28, 1886, a day when “the fog was so thick, Liberty was invisible from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Battery.” But dignitaries and common folk thronged Manhattan as the celebratory parade snaked southward through the heart of the island. On Wall Street, one trader “threw a roll of white ticker tape from the window,” at which point a new American ritual was founded: “Soon the air was filled with strips unfurling from every window. They rained down on the electric wire and on the heads of the marchers, the snouts of the horses, and draped in the hair of the girls. Even the older Wall Street workers were pushing the younger ones away from the windows to hurl the tape. That made the Liberty pageant the city’s first ticker-tape parade.”

Of course the statue immediately became universally beloved, its lamp a beacon for the millions of immigrants then streaming into the country and a symbol for all Americans of their country’s most cherished ideals and dreams. Mitchell tells the story of its construction competently enough, though with peculiar organization. The statue doesn’t really take center stage until about a third of the way through her narrative, the first part being dedicated to telling us a good deal more about Bartholdi than we really need to know. Still, it’s a good story.


The Great Adventure to Build
the Statue of Liberty

By Elizabeth Mitchell

Atlantic Monthly. 310 pp. $27