As with any iconic piece of art, the Statue of Liberty is a product of its time. The second half of the 19th century proved to be a volatile period for domestic and international affairs. Shaped by global power struggles, wars in the United States and Europe, revolution, slavery, republican ideals, Roman mythology and more, the Statue of Liberty took 16 years to complete and nearly went unfinished.
As the American Civil War faced its final months, ultimately resulting in victory for the Union Army and paralleled by the abolition of slavery, the United States was reinvigorated by a renewal of its founding ideals–life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Especially supportive of this renewed embrace of American liberty were the French, who had found their rights and civil liberties impeded by Napoleon III after he staged a coup d’état in 1852 and successfully took the throne. One Frenchman, Édouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, was so proud of the American abolition of slavery and general outcome of the Civil War, that he proposed gifting a monument to the United States to be paid for by the people of France.
Laboulaye, a jurist, poet, author and rabid anti-slavery advocate, while entertaining guests after-dinner one evening in 1865 at his home outside Versailles, is supposed to have said:
“If a monument should rise in the United States, as a memorial to their independence, I should think it only natural if it were built by united effort—a common work of both our nations.”
It so happened that French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was in attendance that night. Bartholdi, however, claims that Laboulaye’s comments were not a formal proposal, but simply an idea. Laboulaye and Bartholdi would discuss the idea over several years, agreeing that the sculpture itself would signify not only the American championing of liberal ideals, but also a stand against a repressive French government which both men faced.
But as their plans began to formalize, France found itself entering the Franco-Prussian War in 1870…
Stay tuned for The History of the Statue of Liberty: Part 2 later this week.
*Header photo of Lady Liberty by Mike Gutkin. Check out his other awesome work on Instagram (@mc_gutty)!