A French-American Tale


Frederick D. Malkinson, M.D.


The Chicago Literary Club


Presented on April 14, 2008
Chicago Literary Club

April 14, 2008


After the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in 1815, his family and all of his relatives were banished from France. Following the death of Napoleon’s only son in 1832, Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon, became the primary claimant to the French throne. Announcing later that only an emperor could restore France to its former status as a great power, Louis Napoleon mounted two failed coup d’états in 1836 and 1840. After the 1848 revolution in France, however, he was elected to the French Assembly with strong Bourbon and Catholic support. Still evoking the Napoleonic legend with its memories of national glory, he was later elected president. Chafing at his constitutionally limited four-year term, he staged a successful coup and was crowned emperor after restoration of the empire in 1852. Although he encouraged industrialization and created certain social-welfare institutions, he soon employed police-state methods against freedom of political activity and freedom of the press. He severely restricted the rights of parliamentary members and continually exercised the utmost personal control over all decisions of government. His successive foreign affairs failures included his fateful attempt to make Maximilian emperor of Mexico, which ended with Maximilian’s execution, terminating French interests in Mexico and Ecuador.


In this setting of national willful and suppressive governmental policies, a dinner party was held one night in Versailles in 1865 at the summer home of Edoard René de Laboulaye. Laboulaye was a leading member of a politically active group that met frequently to discuss French affairs and governmental policies and practices. A legal scholar and jurist, he was a devotee of democratic government, a biographer of Benjamin Franklin, the author of a multi-volume history of the United States, and an abolitionist. Devoted to the cause of democratic government, which they hoped some day to emulate in a new French constitution, the dinner guests had been profoundly shocked by the recent assassination of Abraham Lincoln. That evening, Laboulaye now suggested that a monument (quote), “be built to bring Americans and Frenchmen closer together in their shared ideas of ‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.’” Considering the current political climate, he added that if this monument were to be built, it should be a joint project undertaken by the people of France and the United States. This anecdote was publicly disclosed only many years later by one of the dinner guests, sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, who wrote that (quote), “this interested me so deeply…it remained fixed in my memory.”


Born in the Alsatian town of Colmar in 1834, Bartholdi grew up in Paris where he studied both painting and sculpture, becoming an established artist by age 19. In 1856 he had visited the Holy Land and Egypt, where he viewed the ancient monuments along the Nile and sketched some of the fallen statues. He later described these as (quote), “….centuries-old granite beings….whose kindly and impossible glances seem to disregard the present and to be fixed upon the unlimited future.” Affected deeply by what he had seen, he now focused his artistic interests on the sculpture of colossal and majestic monuments.


In 1869, having heard that Ferdinand de Lesseps planned to build a large lighthouse at Port Said as part of his Suez Canal project, Bartholdi returned to Egypt. He recalled the Colossus at Rhodes—built in the third century B.C. and destroyed in an earthquake in 224 A.D.—a statue so large that it straddled the harbor, with ships passing between its two legs. Bartholdi now conceived of a derivative statue, about 90 feet high, at the entrance of Port Said. He planned to create a robed Egyptian peasant woman carrying a torch, which he named “Egypt Bringing Light to Asia.” However, de Lesseps’ Suez project had been entirely privately financed through his own indefatigable fundraising efforts over the course of many years. Finding Bartholdi’s project far too expensive, he finally declined to commission it. In an interesting twist of fate, however, de Lesseps would return to this modified project in an entirely different role many years later.


The Franco-Prussian war, which was ironically initiated by Louis Napoleon, followed shortly afterward in 1870-71. Bartholdi, now an army officer, led his troops to a failed resistance against the Prussian army in his home city of Colmar. The French defeat at Sedan, and the capture of Louis Napoleon shortly thereafter, led to the establishment of the Third French Republic on September 4, 1870.


Buoyed by these events, Laboulaye advised Bartholdi in 1871 to visit the United States, saying (quote), “You will study it, you will bring back to us your impressions. Propose to our friends over there to make a monument, a common work, in remembrance of the ancient friendship of France and the United States. We will take up a subscription in France.” Bartholdi left for the United States one month later, arriving in New York City where he was deeply impressed by the beauty of the city’s harbor.


For 3½ months Bartholdi traveled the breadth of this country describing his statue plans to anyone who would listen. Confident, gregarious, and carrying several introductory letters, he spoke enthusiastically on this subject with many of the country’s notable citizens, including Cyrus Field, Frederick Olmstead, Henry Longfellow, Brigham Young, and President Ulysses Grant. Traveling from New York to San Francisco and back by train, he stopped at many of the country’s major cities. Encouraged by his reception on this trip to America, he nonetheless returned to France to find that organization of a fundraising committee for the statue had been deferred due to all-out political efforts to consolidate a successful republican regime against monarchical and other forms of opposition.


For the next few years, then, Bartholdi was busy with other commissions, including the new French government’s gift to the United States of the sculpture (quote), “Lafayette Arriving in America,” to recognize strong American support for the new republican government during and after the Franco-Prussian war. At this time, however, Bartholdi also began to review and modify his earlier sketches for the lighthouse at Port Said, producing a new set of drawings and his first models as well. As the early 1870s waned, it gradually became obvious, after initial efforts, that neither the French nor the American governments could be persuaded to provide any funds for the statue project. However, the United States would agree later, in 1877, to accept the statue and assume all maintenance costs, if such a project were to be completed. Reflecting Bartholdi’s sense of the importance and drama of the New York City port, Congress also consented to his earlier suggestion that any gift of a statue be placed in that harbor, the main entrance to the United States. The future-specific site selection, made jointly by Bartholdi and General Sherman, was to be the government-owned Bedloe’s Island, which housed Fort Hood, a military installation built in 1811.


At long last, 200 guests gathered for a banquet in Paris in November 1875 to inaugurate the fundraising plan for the Liberty project, as it was now called. The French-American Committee was formed, headed by Laboulaye, to secure popular support for construction of the statue. Fundraising for the statue’s foundation and its pedestal was to be the United States’ responsibility. That night the flags of both countries were hung; portraits of the French and American presidents, MacMahon and Grant, were displayed; and a painting of the prospective Statue of Liberty, lit at night in New York harbor, focused attention on the main purpose of the gathering. After introductory speeches, one of the guests requested the honor of supplying all of the metal needed for the statue. The event also eventually prompted donations from 180 towns and cities elsewhere in France. Laboulaye, among other remarks made that night, stated (quote), “This Statue of Liberty….will preserve among future generations, like a sacred tradition, the eternal friendship of the United States and France.”  In early 1876, Laboulaye and the Committee organized another gala for fundraising purposes, this time a concert featuring choral music, entitled “The Liberty Contata,” composed by Charles Gounod. Within three years the bulk of the funds needed had been raised in France by 1879.


With initial fundraising assured, Bartholdi now began crafting a series of progressively larger models in clay, plaster, and wood taken from his earlier drawings. These gradually grew in size from 1.25 meters to the last at 11.4 meters, or 37 feet, in height. Divided into sections, each was to be enlarged again four times, giving the completed statue a height of about 150 feet. The statue’s head and face were modeled after Bartholdi’s mother, while his wife served as the model for the body and arms of the statue.


The completed work, of course, had to be covered with metal. Although the art of metal casting was well-developed and widely used by the 1870s, casting placed a limit on the thickness, and hence the weight, of the metal used. Hammered metal, or repoussé, on the other hand, could be fashioned into thinner sheets, and for this project the repoussé technique was ultimately used to fashion over 300 sheets of copper only 3/32-of-an-inch thick for the statue’s skin. Once in place, the copper sheets could be easily dismantled and reassembled for shipping, although even with the use of repoussé copper the final Liberty statue would weigh about 450,000 pounds, or 225 tons. What was required now was an exceedingly strong skeleton to support the very thin-skinned statue and to withstand capricious Atlantic wind storms.


No precedent existed for a solution to this problem. One earlier, but much smaller, Italian statue about 76 feet in height and clothed in repoussé metal had used masonry support. Obviously, in terms of sheer weight, that solution was out of the question for the Liberty project, planned to be 150 feet in height.


Completely thwarted by this problem of structural support for the statue, Bartholdi sought help from Eugène-Emmanuel Voillet-le Duc, famed as a Gothic Revival architect of ecclesiastical buildings, including Notre Dame, and for Renaissance-style secular buildings. A prolific writer on subjects of architectural design and structure, he was well-known in the United States where his ideas on iron skeletal construction had particularly influenced Chicago architect, John Root. For Bartholdi, le-Duc ultimately designed a series of sand-filled compartments that could be individually emptied for repairs. However, before he could complete his plans for the number, size, and position of each compartment, le-Duc died in 1879. Once more, Bartholdi had to seek help elsewhere, but on this ultimately felicitous occasion, he now approached Alexandre Gustave Eiffel.


Eiffel, a French civil engineer who specialized in metal construction, had already achieved fame for building iron bridges for the growing network of railroads in France. A graduate of the College of Art and Manufacturing in 1885, Eiffel was described as (quote), “a man of his times: confident, energetic, daring, entrepreneurial, and an ardent believer in technology.” He had built one high-arched construction over a river in southern France, which spanned 540 feet, rising to a 400-foot height, and for many years the highest bridge in the world. Later on he built a record-sized movable dome for the observatory in Nice.


For the Liberty statue, Eiffel built “a pylon of four wrought-iron columns, 96-feet, 11-inches high, similar to the soaring piers that held his bridges over deep valleys.” For the torch and the arm, he constructed “dense cross-bracing and reinforced platework” to provide stability. “Eight levels of L-shaped iron bars projected from the pylon comprising horizontal struts with diagonal bracing between them.” These secondary supports “would be bolted to flat bars—the tertiary supports. These, connected in turn to iron strapwork on the skin, would function like springs (so that) the statue would literally float on its framework.” Planning and construction time would lead to final completion of the work in 1884.


While labor continued on the statue, large crowds continuously gathered to observe its progress in the courtyard of the Gaget, Gauthier et Cie workshop in Paris, where it soon towered over many of the surrounding buildings. Sometimes these audiences were treated to impromptu self-declared orators on the subject of “liberté, egalité, fraternité.” The fees charged to onlookers contributed further to the French-American Committee’s fundraising efforts. With Laboulaye’s death, Ferdinande de Lesseps had assumed the Committee’s chairmanship. With the refusal of the French government to provide any financial support toward de Lesseps’ plan to build a Suez canal earlier, de Lesseps had become world famous, not only for the ultimate success of his Canal project, but also for his great skills in personally raising the vast private funds needed for its construction. Again, with repeated widespread appeals, he successfully concluded the fundraising for the statue by 1881.


While steady progress was being made in France for fundraising and the completion of the Liberty project, support in the United States for the statue’s foundation and pedestal languished years behind. Back in May 1876, Bartholdi, discouraged by the lack of activity and enthusiasm for the project in America, had traveled to Philadelphia, shipping over 20 crates containing the statue’s right hand, arm, and torch. These were assembled in August in Philadelphia for display at the city’s Centennial Exhibition, mounted to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. For a fee of $0.50, a visitor could climb the steel ladder to the balcony surrounding the torch. On this occasion, much greater enthusiasm and widespread press notice for Bartholdi’s efforts also reflected his previous design for both a monumental fountain for the Exhibition, as well as his statue of Lafayette, the French government’s gift mounted in Union Square in New York City. On this trip, Bartholdi also registered his Liberty project as a “Statue of American Independence” in the Washington, D.C., copyright office. When the proposed federal legislation to support the costs of Liberty’s foundation and pedestal was defeated, the American Committee on the Statue of Liberty was formed in 1877 to promote a national appeal for funds. The Committee soon elected William Evarts as its chairman, one of the country’s greatest lawyers and a Secretary of State for President Hayes.


Fundraising began very slowly, occasioned in part by sharp ups and downs in the economy. Over the next six years, Committee-sponsored and unsponsored benefits, such as sporting events, concerts, and theatrical performances, raised some but not nearly enough money toward the goal of $250,000.


In May 1883, two instructors at the Art Students League in New York City decided to organize a fundraising exhibition for the Committee. One of the exhibition’s features was to be a portfolio of writings and sketches to be compiled for sale. Emma Lazarus, by then a well-known young Jewish poet, was one of only two authors recruited for a portfolio contribution by its writer, Constance Harrison. Harrision knew that Lazarus had published poetry addressing the problems of Jewish pogroms in Russia after the assassination of the liberal Czar, Alexander II, in 1881. She knew, too, that Lazarus had visited immigrant Russian Jews at New York’s Ward Island. To attract Lazarus’ interest, Harrison allegedly said to her, “Think of that Goddess, standing on her pedestal….and holding her torch out to those Russian refugees of yours you are so fond of visiting….” Persuaded, despite initial reluctance, Lazarus’ answering sonnet now went far toward transforming the statue into a new sort of colossus altogether. The exhibition opened on December 3, 1883, at the Academy of Design, principally displaying paintings by Degas, Courbet, Manet, and other already famous or soon-to-be famous artists. Lazarus’s poem was read aloud to over 1,000 visitors that first night shortly after the exhibition’s opening, and Evarts then made his plea for more project support. The weekend exhibition raised $12,000 and the poem, entitled “The New Colossus,” was mentioned both widely in the press and as a feature article in the “Art Amateur” magazine. Lazarus’ linking of the statue with immigrants to the United States gradually became the iconic mission of the Liberty project, particularly for persecuted and oppressed people everywhere.


Six years later, only $100,000 had been raised by December 1883. Several cities—Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and others—had offered to pay all foundation and pedestal construction costs if New York would give up the statue to them, but all proposals were refused.


At this time, Civil War General Charles Stone, an engineer, was selected to supervise construction of the statue’s foundation within the star-shaped walls and amid the cannon of the Fort Wood courtyard. This task was unduly complicated by the bomb-proof masonry used in and around the old Fort, but after a year’s work at double the estimated cost, “23 tons of foundation, the largest mass of concrete (poured) anywhere at the time,” was laid.


With completion of the foundation, Richard Morris Hunt, America’s foremost architect, was selected to design the pedestal. Hunt had spent 11 years, from 1843-54, at the Parisian School of Fine Arts, and had then been appointed inspector of works on buildings connecting the Tuilleries with the Louvre. After returning to the United States, where he introduced the Beaux-Arts style of architecture, he designed the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s façade and several buildings on the Yale and Princeton University campuses. He later received the gold medal of the Royal Institute of Architecture for his design of the Columbian Exposition administration building. He was a founder of the American Institute of Architects and would serve as its president in 1888.


The pedestal design was completed in August 1884. It was to stand about 89 feet in height; slightly tapered, the base measured 91 square feet. When completed, it would be the largest concrete mass ever constructed up to that time. Faced with granite, it combined motifs from several periods of architecture. The cornerstone, a several-ton solid block of granite, was laid on August 5, 1884. However, only a few months later, with only 15 feet of the pedestal completed, all of the available funds had been expended and work was stopped. At that time, the Evarts Committee had raised and spent over $182,000 on the Liberty project. Just the previous month, de Lesseps had formerly presented the gift of the statue to the American people through the American minister to France. Now New York Governor Grover Cleveland requested $100,000 in federal funds to help complete the Liberty project, but once again the bill for this appropriation failed to gain approval.


Suddenly, at that critical juncture, a strong and persistent supporter of the Liberty Project, Joseph Pulitzer, joined the funding campaign with much renewed energy and ingenuity. Pulitzer had immigrated to the United States from Hungary in 1864, joining the Union Army on arrival here. By 1873 he was the publisher of a German-language newspaper in St. Louis, and then, in 1880, had merged two newspapers—the Post and the Dispatch—into a single publication in the same city. In May 1883, he bought the struggling conservative New York World from Jay Gould, converting it to a liberal newspaper. By 1885, the World had reached a daily circulation of over 100,000, the largest on the entire continent. By then it was already famous for its investigative reporting, political corruption exposés, and sensational journalism. Pulitzer’s earlier occasional attempts to raise money for the statue project through his newspaper’s articles had not met with much success. But now, on March 16, 1885, with the American Committee’s announcement that $100,000 was needed to complete the pedestal project, Pulitzer launched a new exuberant and strongly supportive newspaper campaign. He noted that the statue itself had already been paid for by the masses of the French people. He further wrote, (quote) “We must raise the money! The World is the people’s paper, and it now appeals to the people to come forward and raise the money…..Give something, however little.” He always addressed his regular pleas to the people at large, noting ironically, as time went by, that not a single Gould, Whitney, Vanderbilt, or other millionaire ever donated as much as five cents to the Liberty project. The World contributed $1,000 at the outset, Pulitzer personally gave $250, and now fund campaign pleas ran every single day for five months. Tens of thousands of positive replies poured in from Civil War veterans, children, laborers, the World’s newsboys, and many others. Many donations were accompanied by notes such as the following: “I am a wee bit of a girl, yet I am ever so glad I was born in time to contribute my mite ($1) to the Pedestal”; “The enclosed dollar comes from a party of poor artists”; “Although I cannot creep, I can shout for the cause of Liberty when my papa and momma want to sleep. Inclosed please find $1 from a little boy eight months old”; and “I am a young man of foreign birth and have seen enough of monarchical governments to appreciate the blessing of the Republic. Inclosed please find $2 for the fund.” Throughout the press campaign, every donor’s name was duly printed in the newspaper. Two months later, by mid-May 1885, $50,000 had been raised.


Meanwhile in France, the crated statue, requiring 17 railroad cars for transportation to the port of Rouen, was put aboard the French ship Isère, which arrived in New York harbor on June 17. One month later, the 214 containers of the statue’s segments were unloaded on Bedloe’s Island. This well-publicized event resulted in a new outpouring of contributions, and on August 11, 1885, the World’s headline proudly announced, “$100,000! Triumphant Completion of World’s Fund for the Liberty Pedestal.” Over a five-month period, 120,000 people had contributed $102,000. Only two other contributors apart from Pulitzer had made significant personal contributions: $1,000 from one individual, and $250 from William Whitney, Secretary of the Navy, and the only federal employee anywhere to support the fund. Shortly, a dinner celebrating completion of the pedestal fund drive was held in New York City, with Pulitzer, Bartholdi, and ex-President Chester Arthur attending.


Work was now resumed on the pedestal, which was completed the following year on April 22, 1886. When the last granite block was laid, workmen placed coins in the mortar as a reminder of the 120,000 gifts received by the World’s fund, the majority of which were for less than $1. It then took six months to mount the statue onto the pedestal. Eiffel’s iron framework was fastened to the pedestal first, and then the plate sections of the statue were uncrated one by one to be attached to its framework.


On October 25, 1886, a French delegation headed by Bartholdi, his wife, and Ferdinand de Lesseps arrived back in New York. Bartholdi, viewing the veiled statue, said to the accompanying newspaper reporters (quote), “The dream of my life is accomplished….I see the symbol of unity and friendship….between two great republics.”


The unveiling of the statue took place on October 28, 1886, a specially declared public holiday, but a day of persistent rain and fog. Nonetheless, a four-mile-long parade route was crowded with 20,000 marchers—war veterans, governors, other public officials, and several marching bands. The route was cluttered with French and American flags, and was lined with an estimated one million spectators, by far the largest parade in the history of New York City. On the parade route, the marchers all passed by a reviewing stand bearing President Cleveland, Bartholdi, de Lesseps, and a few of the president’s cabinet members, the route ending at the Battery, opposite Bedloe’s Island. Meanwhile, a bevy of about 300 ships coming down the Hudson River had formed a semi-circle below the Island. A tremendous cheer arose later on when, after a signal from below, Bartholdi, who had ascended to the statue’s head, removed the French flag to reveal Liberty’s face. At that moment the harbor ships blasted their horns and whistles, and those which were armed fired their guns.

A number of speeches by dignitaries followed, with President Cleveland declaring that Bartholdi was the greatest man in America that day. He then stated (quote), “We will not forget that Liberty has made here her home, nor shall her chosen alter be neglected….a stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until liberty enlightens the world.”


The poor weather persisted for three more nights, but “On November 1, …with tugboats and steamers encircling Bedloe’s Island, a display of rockets, shooting stars, and bombs was launched, brilliantly illuminating the harbor with cascading red, white, and blue sparks. At seven o’clock, a bright white light radiated through the lenses of the statue’s torch—the (electrified) torch (had been) lit.”


One spring day seventeen years later, in 1903, a lone workman entered the pedestal to mount there a bronze memorial plaque on which was engraved Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet, “The New Colossus.” The placement of the plaque, a gift from an anonymous donor, was otherwise totally unobserved and was only belatedly, if briefly, reported in the New York Times on May 7.


It seems fitting, then, to conclude this story with the famous last six lines of Lazarus’ sonnet (quote):


“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Liberty’s calm gaze and serene posture carry little hint of the struggle that attended her creation. How, after 20 years of effort in the face of almost incredible odds, the dedication of a talented few and the generosity of the masses enabled to be built the most famous statue in the world is a story as remarkable as the Statue of Liberty itself.”


Finally, however, and perhaps most amazing of all, are the recent historic events that have provoked such a spectacular reversal in the political and cultural milieu in both France and the United States 121 years later.





Allen, Leslie. “Liberty: The Statue and the American Dream.” Published by the Statue of LibertyEllis Island Foundation, New York City, New York. 1985.


Bell, James B. and Abrams, Richard I. “In Search of Liberty: The Story of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.” Doubleday and Co., Inc., Garden City, New York. 1984.


Benton, Barbara. “Ellis Island: A Pictorial History.” Facts on File Publications, New York City, New York. 1985.


Brian, Denis. “Pulitzer: A Life.” John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York City, New York. 2001.


Heffernan, Maureen. “The Statue of Liberty: A History and a Celebration.” Woodbury Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 1986.


Schor, Esther. “Emma Lazarus.” Schocken Books, Random House, Inc., New York, New York. 2006.