Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Copper

It was 135 years ago today. The ships from France arrived in the Upper New York Bay carrying 214 wooden crates and 350 monstrous individual pieces of iron, steel, and copper.

Everyone was talking about it, from Mark Twain to Thomas Edison.

The first guy to propose the statue was Édouard de Laboulaye, a French anti-slavery activist. His idea was that since the Civil War was over, it was a perfect time to honor human freedom.

Artist Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was immediately excited about the idea. He agreed to design it. He asked for help from his friend, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the same man responsible for the Eiffel Tower.

Bartholdi and Eiffel got together one night—they probably had a few beers—and brainstormed about a statue Bartholdi had been thinking about for years.

At least, it seemed like beer was involved because they ended up designing a 450,000-pound structure, gilded in pure gold, with a mind-blowing framework of iron pylons and support beams, that would double as a lighthouse.

It would take years of work to get the idea off the ground.

For one thing, they had to get some actual Americans onboard. Which wasn’t easy because Americans were about as interested in public art as they were in fat-free mayonnaise.

So Bartholdi had to promote the tar out of this thing. He proposed building it in New York. Then, he did a lot of public relations footwork in the U.S., like demonstrating the statue’s torch at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. And even though a lot of people thought it was neat idea, most Americans were still leaning toward the fat-free mayo.

Until…

Boston said in 1882 that they wanted the statue built in their harbor. You have to watch out for Boston.

This changed everything. Up until that moment, New York hadn’t been too concerned with the statue. But now that Beantown was in the picture, it was a different ballgame.

Even the “New York Times” got hacked off when they heard Boston was trying to horn in on their statue. They published a statement that went like this:

“…That great light-house statue will be smashed into … fragments before it shall be stuck up in Boston Harbor.”

And that got the ball rolling.

But enough about that. Let’s get back to the money thing. The French government didn’t really care for the idea of the statue because, for starters, they were the French government. But the working-class French citizens felt very differently about it, and they took matters into their own hands.

And here’s where the story gets interesting. The French hamlets and rural townships loved the idea of an American statue so much, they started funding it themselves. Donations came in from remote regions of France by the boatload.

Nearly 180 villages sent in tens of thousands of francs. Schoolchildren mailed in pocket change. Elderly Frenchmen who still remembered when their fathers fought in the American Revolution sent in donations.

After lots of fundraising, Bartholdi had enough money, and construction began.

Step one was to build the statue in France. Step two was to disassemble the colossus, then ship it to America. And anyone who has ever assembled IKEA furniture with one’s wife knows that (a) this was a major undertaking, and (b) IKEA furniture is the leading cause of divorce in this country.

But there were more problems on the horizon. Namely, the issue of the statue’s pedestal. You don’t just build a 111-foot statue in your backyard and put it next to your above-ground pool. You need a foundation, and foundations cost.

America tried raising the money for the pedestal with fundraising projects, but not much happened because many Americans were still sitting on their proverbial thumbs.

So Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper publisher, got involved. He was very jazzed up about this statue and announced to his readers that he would print anyone’s name who donated to the statue. Even if that person only donated one penny.

That was all it took.

Millions of cash donations came flooding in. The best part is, they came mostly from average Americans in little towns across the U.S.

Children all over were raiding piggy banks and sending their nickels to New York. A kindergarten class in Iowa sent in $1.35. A rural school in Kansas sent in $2. A young German woman sent in an envelope containing eight pennies.

In six months, the newspapers raised $102,000, which is about 2.7 million in today’s dollars.

After it was built, the dedication parade in Manhattan was ridiculous. There were brass bands, reporters, magnates, barkeepers, mill workers, baseball players, homeless children, street sweeps, housewives, mothers, babies, immigrants, priests, landlords, and politicians.

The parade route went from Midtown Manhattan, past Fifth Avenue, and Broadway. The crowds grew bigger with each block. People rushed out of storefronts and taverns to join the fanfare.

When the procession passed the New York Stock Exchange, traders got so excited that they began throwing ticker tape from the windows until it looked like it was snowing. It became history’s first “ticker-tape parade.”

Throngs huddled around the Upper New York Bay, waiting for the ceremony. The colossal statue’s face was covered in a giant flag. And when the statue was unveiled, the roar of a crowd almost ruptured the pedestal. A pedestal which bore a sonnet inscribed on a bronze plaque:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
“Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

In the statue’s lifetime, over 12 million hopeful immigrants would look upon her when entering this gloriously imperfect nation. She stood proud, tarnished from corrosion and salt air, and greeted my ancestors. Maybe she greeted yours, too.

One Greek immigrant recalls standing on the main deck of a steamship, seeing Liberty for the first time. The statue stood tall in the distance, like a giant copper myth, blanketed in morning fog. The young immigrant’s English was broken, but his eyes were soaked when he said:

“I saw the Statue of Liberty, and I say’a to myself, ‘Lady, you’re such a’beautiful. Give me a chance to prove that I am worth it, to do something, to be someone in America.’”

May all God’s children have that chance.

42 comments

  1. Sandi. - June 18, 2020 7:49 am

    What a beautiful story about the Statue of Liberty, Sean! Thank you for this interesting background information. To see the size, grandeur and magesty of the Statue close up brought tears to my eyes, too. I am extremely grateful to be an American.

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  2. Jimmy Stewart - June 18, 2020 8:26 am

    Amen Sean, Amen!!!

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  3. Deborah Blount - June 18, 2020 8:56 am

    Amen. We as Americans need to remember why we were considered the great experiment. For anyone who has never seen this beautiful lady, I highly reccomend taking the opportunity to travel to New York to catch a glimpse of her in your lifetime. It will strengthen your pride in America and renew your desire to be the type of American that opens their arms to all in need.

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  4. Dean - June 18, 2020 10:23 am

    Love America. Thanks for sharing. My biggest hope is the people that don’t love it would leave it so true Americans could live in peace

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  5. Naomi - June 18, 2020 10:49 am

    Sean, I am a first-generation American. My father and his family were born in Poland. My mother and her family immigrated from Russia. They both went through Ellis Island. There is a plaque there with my grandfather’s name on it, We need to pray that we can still keep our country safe and free from those who want to destroy us,

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  6. Maggie Kruger - June 18, 2020 11:23 am

    So sweet

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  7. Sandi - June 18, 2020 11:47 am

    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” And still we can’t get it right.

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  8. everylittleting - June 18, 2020 11:59 am

    Good one. God bless us all.

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  9. Sharon Brock - June 18, 2020 12:22 pm

    Gave me goosebumps Sean. This was beautiful.

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  10. Norma Lockney - June 18, 2020 12:28 pm

    Thank you, Sean. I loved learning about the back story of the Statue of Liberty. She greeted my dad when he came to the USA in the 1950’s. It is refreshing to know how ordinary Americans United to raise the money to make her construction happen! Thank you for your blog.

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  11. Phil S. - June 18, 2020 12:33 pm

    Great history lesson, Sean. I’ve been on the planet 75 years and never knew that much about the details of Lady Liberty’s story. It is also a great lesson in life, causing me to reflect on what she stands for. So, thanks a bunch. All the best to you and yours.

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  12. Ala Red Clay Girl - June 18, 2020 12:59 pm

    She is a grand lady, representing the greatest country in the world. The U.S. is not perfect but, seriously, would anyone want to live in the land of their immigrant ancestors?

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  13. Jan - June 18, 2020 1:09 pm

    Amen. May we never forget …

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  14. Susan A. Royal - June 18, 2020 1:11 pm

    You’ve done it again.

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  15. Sharron Paris - June 18, 2020 1:35 pm

    My father was a govt. employee and we lived overseas until I was a teen. My only view of Lady Liberty was when we were arriving by air, but the sunrise just caught the torch perfectly. The sunrise sent a ray of light right back to the plane. Even being an American citizen I was awed by the USA ,as my upbringing was handled mostly by nannies in Europe. I get irritated by those who have no idea what they are messing with when they choose to disrespect our past and the effort our ancestors made to create a country where “All men are created equal (….) among those are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. Lady Liberty has done her job well as Liberty Enlightening the World, and it would be excellent if our citizens appreciated the fact that we do enjoy liberties not afforded to many who reside elsewhere in the world.

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  16. walter buehler - June 18, 2020 1:43 pm

    Thank you for this commemorative tribute to visionaries in France and citizens of both France and America to realize this splendid dream and project. However, as Gustave Eiffel was born in Dijon, near the heart of Burgundy, it is far more likely that several glasses of wine, instead of beer, were consumed in discussing the project.

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  17. Dell Corley - June 18, 2020 2:59 pm

    Oh wow! A perfect story in these troubled times. It lifts my spirit today, and I truly needed it!

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  18. charliestsimons - June 18, 2020 3:04 pm

    your writing teachers should be proud.
    your mom should be proud
    your dad is especially proud
    Well done, Sean! Well done!
    and thank you…

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  19. Robert M Brenner - June 18, 2020 3:21 pm

    Sean,

    You could preach this message from every church pulpit in America. Your writings start my day and make me think about so many worthy and important issues. Thanks, Bob

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  20. Ann - June 18, 2020 3:29 pm

    We pray for continued opportunities 🙏🏻🇺🇸🇺🇸

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  21. Linda Moon - June 18, 2020 4:18 pm

    Low-fat mayonnaise is just as bad as the fat-free kind. So what’s the solution for this? Anyway, that’s not the point of my comment here. I don’t know if Miss Liberty greeted my ancestors. But my family took a long road trip to New York several years ago, and both my children saw her. I’m proud of what they’ve become. Thank you, Sean, for today’s history about the Statue of Liberty. Vive la Liberte’!

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  22. Donna - June 18, 2020 4:25 pm

    Stirring history (and lovely comments)! My ancestral families arrived in America long before Lady Liberty was even a twinkle in Bartholdi’s unborn eye. It wasn’t until I was almost 30yrs old before seeing her for the first time. Oh my, how deeply the beautiful lady moved me! I’ve been blessed to travel the world, yet hands down, Lady Liberty and The Grand Canyon are the two most awe inspiring experiences in my patriotic American life.

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  23. David Brower - June 18, 2020 4:30 pm

    Beautiful, Sean. Thanks.

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  24. Jeanne Butler - June 18, 2020 4:36 pm

    Sure hope the nutcase don’t take her down 😡😡

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  25. Gretchen Hitchcock - June 18, 2020 4:46 pm

    Just loved this! It is an awesome sight and one I felt very lucky to share with my young family.

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  26. Billie Wood - June 18, 2020 4:51 pm

    Billie Wood
    Thank you for sharing this great story. I am so very proud and blessed to be an American; I love my country and it breaks my heart to hear/see those who want to destroy it. The freedom we have as citizens of this USA is precious! I have lived in foreign countries and every time I return home I want to kneel and kiss the ground in appreciation of this great country – there is no other place on this earth that offers the freedom and opportunities we have been blessed with!

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  27. Becky Souders - June 18, 2020 5:47 pm

    “All God’s children got a place in the choir” … https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-iP27eatYxE

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  28. Bobbie - June 18, 2020 5:52 pm

    Ditto what Billie said!! It’s indeed heartbreaking seeing the ingratitude and disrespect that ravages our country today. Thank you for reminding us what Lady Liberty stands for. A proud country of people who fought to make it their home…now it is all being threatened, lives and businesses, many of which are gone forever. I pray we will stand firm and be a light to those in darkness.
    God bless America🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸‼️

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  29. greatgrams6 - June 18, 2020 6:50 pm

    Thanks, wonderful history lesson!

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  30. cindy ponder - June 18, 2020 7:01 pm

    I especially enjoyed today’s column. In light of the Supreme Court decision regarding DACA…These young immigrants have the opportunity to … breathe free….

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  31. Bill in Florida (USArmy Ret) - June 18, 2020 7:17 pm

    I’ve seen Lady Liberty 5 times, 4 times going to and coming from Germany on troop ships. And once from a military airplane window returning to the US. It is indeed a beautiful sight especially if you haven’t been home in 3 years. And I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe and not seen the Eiffel Tower, not have I wanted to.

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  32. Christina - June 18, 2020 8:03 pm

    Thanks Sean for holding this safe space where the tired, poor and hurting feel seen and heard and can breathe freely. I hope we carry this wherever we go

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  33. Alice Roose - June 18, 2020 9:10 pm

    Dear Sean i love this story thank you for telling us all the details and how this beautiful monument came here!i just hope and pray that with all that is going on today she is not going to be next!!God Bless you Sean!Love you!

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  34. Chasity Davis Ritter - June 18, 2020 11:20 pm

    Sean… your way with words…. they make us think and feel and understand. They also usually make me cry but I’ll forgive you that. This was beautiful. I’ve never seen her in person but I could imagine she really is something. I see our Flag everyday and she really is something to me also. I pray and pray with all my might that our country can get back to what it once was. A great nation. I feel she is suffering so right now and is not looked upon that way by many if even any right now. We need to come together and like that immigrant said prove that we are still worth it…. one country. One family. One race… the human race.

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  35. Jim Thomssen - June 19, 2020 12:59 am

    And amazingly enough a 1/2 scale working model of the Statute of Liberty stands today in a traffic circle in Colmar France. Gotta watch out for the french!

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  36. Toni - June 19, 2020 2:56 am

    Wonderful description of the conception and creation of such a magnificent symbolic statue. Appreciate very much your writing this terrific history lesson. From an Australian who has visited the Grand Canyon and other beautiful places, and now must view this.

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  37. Linda - June 19, 2020 3:48 am

    My grandfather, traveling by himself , developed an infection in his jaw as he made his way from Avellino , Italy to Naples to catch “ the boat “ to America…
    He went to a dentist in Naples and he drilled a hole thru his cheek to get to the infection. On the crossing over the Atlantic, the infection still raged and his cheek swelled to twice its size. The other immigrants told him he didn’t have a prayer of getting into America with such a physical problem….
    So I am not sure if he saw the Statue of Liberty as the boat approached NY harbor before he jumped off the boat and swam to the shore,….
    But I bet eventually, after he settled in Little Italy he walked down to the Harbor and saw Lady Liberty for himself.
    I am so very proud of his courage……

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  38. Dolores - June 19, 2020 5:01 am

    My maternal grandfather, his sister, father and mother, all had the opportunity to see this beautiful lady. And I am so very proud that they did, for if not, I would not be here. I love my country, my flag and what we stand for. May God bless us again and may His Spirit sweep this country to turn us all back to Him as it was when we were founded. Amen. Thank you, Sean, for some beautiful memories.

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  39. French Thomas - June 19, 2020 11:05 pm

    I wonder how soon it will be torn down?

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  40. BeBlue - June 20, 2020 4:08 pm

    Hey Sean. Traveling through Alsace in the early 1990s in search of my ancestral family, I stopped for gasoline in Colmar, Auguste Bartholdi’s birthplace. When I went in to pay, the clerk (in somewhat broken English which was better than my 3 years of high school French) asked me to wait for a few minutes while he called his father. I had no idea why but played along. Dad arrived on a bicycle about 5 minutes later and, in perfect English, proceeded to welcome me, ask about my trip and then asked if I was American. >> Yes, American, why do you ask? >> He then told me that he was in the French Resistance during World War II and that he was so grateful to the Americans since they helped save France. I almost didn’t know how to reply and the story still amazes me all these decades later. >> I guess Bartholdi’s attitude lives on.

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  41. Judy - July 3, 2020 2:22 pm

    This is the first time I’ve ever heard about the Boston competition. Thanks for sharing this history.

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  42. Diane Madison - July 3, 2020 8:59 pm

    I love this story and every time i hear it or read it I get choked up!! Thank you for the beautiful reminder Sean!!

    Reply

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