The Illustrious History of the Statue of Liberty


Statue of Liberty Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty has overlooked the New York City skyline for more than a century, symbolizing freedom to millions of people. Bryan Esler/Getty Images
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

These iconic words are etched into a bronze plaque located in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The words are part of "The New Colossus," the sonnet written in 1883 by fifth-generation American Jew Emma Lazarus.

She wrote "The New Colossus" to help raise money for the pedestal of the new statue at the request of a friend. Lazarus at that time was also known for working with East European Jewish refugees and knew a poem of such significance could bring attention to the plight of refugees coming to America.

But today Lazarus' words — and the original intention behind the sonnet — have raised new questions about the meaning of the Statue of Liberty and what it represents. How did Lady Liberty come to the U.S. and what does this copper statue that's stood in New York Harbor for so many decades symbolize? Is she still really a beacon of freedom to millions around the world?

France's Gift to the U.S.

The Statue of Liberty has become such a legendary representation of New York City and America itself, it's hard to imagine a time before it found a place in the skyline. It all began in the 1860s, when French poet and antislavery activist Édouard de Laboulaye proposed the idea of a post-Civil War commemoration of America's newfound freedoms and democracy. He believed France should give a great monument as a gift to the United States to celebrate both the Union's victory in the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery.

The idea resonated with a young French sculptor named Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi who'd been experimenting with large-scale works. Bartholdi started drafting designs, and the original goal was to complete the ambitious artistic endeavor by 1876, to mark the centennial of the American Declaration of Independence. The statue was set to represent the good will between America and France.

There was a little financial snag, though — well, a big financial snag — in both participating nations. To raise the necessary funds for construction, the French government introduced everything from public fees to a fundraising lottery, and the United States held auctions and benefit theatrical events. And as we mentioned, Lazarus penned "The New Colossus" for the art and literary auction to help generate money for the pedestal.

While all this was taking place, Bartholdi recruited an experienced engineer to help troubleshoot structural issues with the massive sculpture. Enter Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the man responsible for another internationally recognized architectural wonder, the Eiffel Tower. Together with Bartholdi, Eiffel helped design the 450,000-pound (200,000-kilogram) structure and specifically had a hand in planning out the iron pylon and secondary skeletal framework.

The Statue of Liberty was finally completed in France in July 1884 and arrived (in 350 individual pieces packed in 214 crates) in New York Harbor in June 1885. Ten years after her original projected debut, the Statue of Liberty became an official New York City icon and President Grover Cleveland oversaw the official dedication ceremony on Oct. 28, 1886.

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The Statue of Liberty (seen here circa 1894) became an official New York City icon when President Grover Cleveland oversaw the statue's official dedication ceremony on Oct. 28, 1886.
Library of Congress

Lady Liberty Stands Tall

Lady Liberty herself has a full, proper name: The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World. The statue's face was apparently inspired by the face of Bartholdi's mother. Made from iron, steel and 300 layers of hand-hammered copper weighing 31 tons (28 metric tons), Lady Liberty herself stands approximately 111 feet (34 meters) tall. She reaches an astounding 305 feet (93 meters) if you take her pedestal and torch into account (that's the equivalent height of a 22-story building).

The copper coating her is 3/32 inches thick (about 2.5 millimeters), which happens to be the same thickness as two pennies placed together, while the internal structure is comprised of cast iron and stainless steel.

As for her signature green hue, that's due to the natural oxidation of that copper coating. When the statue was originally completed in 1886, she had more of a copper penny tinge, but over about three decades, the brown hue fully oxidized to form the sea green color otherwise known as a patina. In 1984, the statue got a makeover when her original torch was replaced by a new copper one covered in 24k gold leaf. The original torch is on display at the monument's museum.

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Lady Liberty stands approximately 305 feet (93 meters) tall from pedestal to torch. That's the equivalent height of a 22-story building.
PeskyMonkey/Getty Images

The Enduring Meaning of the Statue of Liberty

While the Statue of Liberty emerged from a desire to represent an alliance between America and France, its core meaning is a mutual desire for freedom — liberty for all people all over the world. It's no accident that the Statue of Liberty was placed to face southeast. From that vantage point, she makes a perfect welcoming symbol for visitors and immigrants from her home on Liberty Island.

The seven-pointed crown on her head symbolizes the seven continents and seven seas, and the broken shackles at her feet represent freedom from oppression. Lady Liberty possesses a few other symbols as well. She's holding a tablet in her left hand inscribed with the date July 4, 1776 (the date of American independence) written in Roman numerals (July IV MDCCLXXVI). And that giant torch in her right hand? It's meant to represent enlightenment — a fitting accessory for Liberty Enlightening the World.

As for the Lazarus poem, some history experts like Robert J. McNamara believe while Bartholdi had originally envisioned Lady Liberty as a symbol of America exuding its own freedom, "The New Colossus" represented America as a refuge for oppressed people seeking liberty.

"Lazarus was no doubt thinking of the Jewish refugees from Russia she had been volunteering to assist at Ward's Island," McNamara wrote in ThoughtCo. regarding the poet's volunteer work to help new arrivals. "And she surely understood that had she been born somewhere else, she may have faced oppression and suffering herself."

While there may be countless interpretations, dissections and misreadings of Lady Liberty's many meanings, one thing's for sure: She has indeed served as America's one-woman welcome committee for well over a century. When the U.S. government opened a federal immigration station on Ellis Island in 1892, about 12 million immigrants were eventually processed there before receiving permission to enter the country — all of whom were greeted by the sight of the Statue of Liberty nearby.

Today, the Statue of Liberty remains a major attraction for citizens and visitors from all over the world — approximately 4.5 million people make the pilgrimage to see her each year. One of the most popular attractions is climbing up to her crown, which has 25 windows overlooking New York City and the harbor. It's a strenuous climb up a tight spiral staircase, but visitors are rewarded with panoramic views of Brooklyn, as well as Gustave's original supporting iron-and-steel framework.