The LA Progressive ran a story in the spring of 2011 that began with a video of Sarah Palin being interviewed at Liberty Island. In it she is asked about the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, she responded:
“It is, of course, the symbol for Americans to be reminded of other countries because this was gifted us, of course by the French—other countries warning us to never make the mistakes that some of them had made.”
Paraphrased, Palin was saying that France gave the United States the statue to warn the U.S. not to commit the mistakes other countries committed.
The problem with her response –American exceptionalism and word salad aside — is that it has no basis in fact. In other words, it is WRONG. Historians tell us that the Statue of Liberty represents the OPPOSITE of what Palin suggests. Instead of reminding the United States not to make mistakes made by other countries, the Statue of Liberty was given to the U.S. as a monument to acknowledge the end of one of its biggest mistakes — slavery.
When we ran the story in 2011, we got lots of feedback from readers who were surprised to learn that the Statue of Liberty was in any way connected to slavery. However, several of our readers did some checking on their own and commented that they couldn’t find information corroborating our story. Some mentioned that the U.S. Parks Service (the federal agency responsible for the Statue of Liberty) offered information on their site that did not line up with what we were reporting.
In 2011, the U.S. Park Service made no mention of the chains or the connection between the emancipation of the American slaves and the gift from France — the Statue of Liberty. Even though the U.S. Parks Service was fully aware of the story, they did not mention it on their website or any of the pamphlets given to tourists when visiting Lady Liberty. But sometime between 2011 and 2014 the U.S. Parks Service made a dramatic change. Today, the U.S. Parks Service website tells the story of how the Statue of Liberty came to be in New York’s harbor and its relationship to slavery. Following is an abbreviated version.
The Statue of Liberty that today sits on Liberty Island in New York harbor is known to have been the brainchild of noted Frenchmen and abolitionist Edouard de Laboulaye, a man so dedicated to the eradication of slavery that he co-founded the French Anti-Slavery Society. The idea for establishing a monument specifically to honor the emancipation of slaves in America was discussed between Laboulaye and Frederic Bartholdi, a French sculptor in 1865, the year the U.S. abolished slavery.
In addition to his abolition work, Laboulaye was also a U.S. Constitution expert. Although we cannot know this for sure, one can only imagine that the 1865 signing of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be very important to an abolitionist and likely fueled Laboulaye’s desire to have the monument built. So, in 1865 he shared this idea with Bartholdi, who later became the designer of the statue, working closely with Laboulaye to make Laboulaye’s vision a reality.
The connection between the Statue of Liberty and the abolition of slavery is one that has been denied for 125 years. Almost from the start of the project, the American financiers wanted no mention of slavery and for 125 yrs they got their wish.
Although Laboulaye and Batholdi had envisioned a statue holding broken chains and shackles (as shown in the image above on the left), the early financiers that funded the project did not want chains on the monument. It was the American backers who were most opposed to the notion that the statue should in anyway acknowledge slavery. Because the French, who were paying for the statue, were facing difficult economic times, Laboulaye and Bartholdi relied on Americans to pay for and build the pedestal where the statue would stand. This was an essential part of the monument. Without American financial backing, the project could not be completed, but the American financiers were adamant that Laboulaye lose the chains and shackles. One can only surmise that some of the backers may have made their fortunes directly or indirectly through slavery.
In her book, Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty, Yasmin Sabina Kahn explained that although Laboulaye came upon the idea and communicated it to Bartholdi in 1865, the political climate in France at the time and a lack of funding made it impossible to raise enough money to get the project off the ground for several years. Indeed, it took the sculptor years to raise the funds. According to Kahn, “Bartholdi’s original depiction of Lady Liberty had her holding broken chains in her left hand, with more broken chains and broken shackles at her feet. The chains were symbolic of the end of slavery in the United States.”
In lectures and on speaking tours, noted professor Dr. Joy DeGruy, frequently talks about the chains that were part of the original renderings of the Statue of Liberty. DeGruy explains that Bartholdi intended the statue to represent democracy and to symbolize the end of all types of oppression. However, according to DeGruy, the American decision-makers of the day rebuffed Bartholdi for including the chains and shackles and insisted that he remove them. Bartholdi was adamant that they remain, although he eventually was forced to compromise because he didn’t want to risk losing the financial support that was making the project possible. Finally, he removed the chains from Lady Liberty’s hand, replacing them with a book.
But, what most people don’t know, even today, is that Bartholdi left the broken shackles and chains that were at her feet. These symbols of state-sponsored bondage, human chattel and the hypocrisy of American exceptionalism remain there on the Statue of Liberty as a permanent reminder of the slaves that contributed to the building of the United States.
Because the height of the pedestal built to support the statue makes it impossible to see the chains and shackles from the ground, most people visiting Liberty Island remain unaware of them. This is where the U. S. Parks Service plays a pivotal role.
While it is not surprising that Sarah Palin got it wrong, it should be noted that if asked, most of us would likely get it wrong too.
Clearly, the chains were obvious when the statue was delivered and installed 125 years ago but that knowledge quickly faded from memory. Aided by the fact that the height of the pedestal made the chains and shackles impossible to see unless one were viewing the statue from a helicopter, the wishes of the original funders were fulfilled. No one need know the true meaning of the Statue of Liberty. For most of the years since the statue’s installation at Liberty Island, its true meaning has been kept in the dark. Even the U.S. agency tasked with the responsibility of caring for and educating the public about the statue had a hand in keeping the true meaning hidden.
One contention of those in opposition to the idea that the statue celebrated the end of slavery was the date the statue was proposed. Due to lack of funding, more than 20 years passed between the time the statue was first proposed in 1865 and the actual installation on Liberty Island in 1886. Those who wanted to downplay the connection between the statue and slavery insist that the year 1865 played no role in the idea to build the monument. In a report released by the U.S. Park Service in 2000, the Park Service claimed that noted abolitionist Edouard de Laboulaye did not propose the idea of constructing a monument in 1865. Their report states:
This story is a legend. All available evidence points to its conception in 1870 or 1871. The dinner party legend is traceable to a single source — an 1885 fund-raising pamphlet written by the statue’s sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, after the death of Laboulaye.
But somewhere along the way, the U.S. Parks Service changed its position. They now admit that
- the year 1865 was a key element of the story;
- Laboulaye is the father of the idea for the monument; and
- he was an abolitionist who wanted to honor the emancipation of the slaves.
Perhaps pressure was brought to bear on the agency forcing them to change their literature and their website but today they devote pages to the history of the statue and prominently state that the statue was a gift to the United States from the people of France to celebrate “the Union’s victory in the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery.” You can find this and more at The National Parks Service website.
I started this piece with the video of Sarah Palin partly because any mention of Sarah somehow catches people’s attention but mostly because Sarah Palin’s understanding of the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty is probably not very different from most Americans. So while it is not surprising that Sarah Palin got it wrong, it should be noted that if asked, most of us would likely get it wrong too.
As an American who is a decendent of slaves, I find it all the more shameful that this country continues to have countless monuments honoring men known to have been slaveholders but nothing honoring the millions whose blood, sweat and tears built this country. From that perspective, the story of the Statue of Liberty and how it came to be a part of our national landscape is as important as the story of Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride and should be as widely known. The National Park Service took an important step towards that end when it changed its position. And people like Dr. Joy DeGruy and others likely had a hand in making that happen.
To all who made that happen, I say thank you.
Publisher, LA Progressive
(Dr. Joy DeGruy can be seen in the video below. She talks about the statue at about 43 seconds into the video. She’s a great storyteller. Watch it – you won’t be disappointed.)