Was the Statue of Liberty a gift from the people of France? That's the official story, even more than a century later. The statue, which was dedicated in 1886, is maintained by the National Park Service, whose website makes the claim so many of us learned in school: "The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World was a gift of friendship from the people of France to the people of the United States."
But how can “the people of France” give anything to anyone?
For most of my life, I assumed the statue was a gift from the French government to the American government. Haven't we been conditioned to hear “the people” and understand instead “the State”? And didn't this gift to "the people of the United States" end up in the hands of the U.S. government? I always figured there was a national government on both the giving and receiving ends.
But the Statue of Liberty was a private project. The designer was not a fan of the American people, nor was he particularly devoted to the idea of liberty: "The Americans believe that it is Liberty that illumines the world, but, in reality, it is my genius."
Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi wanted wealth and world renown for building a celebrated colossus, and he was willing to shop the idea around—even to the era's most illiberal customers.
His first pitch for a giant, torch-bearing statue was to the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, which was, at the time, the single greatest commercial conduit for the international slave trade.
The statue that now stands in New York Harbor is officially called “Liberty Enlightening the World” (La Liberté éclairant le monde). The statue in Egypt was to be called “Egypt Enlightening the World” or, more awkwardly, "Progress Carrying the Light to Asia."
Failing to close the deal in Egypt, Bartholdi repackaged it for America.
When this bit of backstory reached the American public, Bartholdi denied that one project had anything to do with the other, but the similarity in designs is unmistakable.
Egypt was a vassal state of an authoritarian empire and the gateway for the colossal African slave trade into Asia—whereas the fundraising for the Statue of Liberty proposed a monument not merely to liberty but to the recent abolition of American slavery. (Picture the broken chains at the Statue of Liberty's feet.)
The original statue was to be an Egyptian woman—a fellah, or native peasant—draped in a burqa, one outstretched arm holding a torch to guide the ships on the great waterway over which she would stand.
Bartholdi had wanted to place his piece at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal in Port Said because the canal represented French greatness in general and engineering greatness more specifically. His statue was to be a synthesis of French art and French engineering, as well as a political symbol of the progress that France offered the East.
The canal was indeed a great engineering accomplishment and a giant step forward for world trade and greater wealth and comfort for everyone—including the toiling masses. But it was built on the back of slave labor, a 10-year corvée that forced Egyptian peasants to do the digging. Thousands died.
The female fellah to be represented in the statue may not have been a slave in any permanent sense, but her contemporary real-life counterpart was likely to have been drafted into the army of involuntary labor that built the canal over whose northern port she was to stand, “enlightening the world.”
If it was embarrassing for the American project that Bartholdi had not originally had the American people in mind, it was that much worse that the design for the great icon of liberty began as a symbol, however unintentional, of coerced labor from the commercial center of slavery.
Fortunately for Bartholdi's vision, the controversy did not scuttle the project. But before he could talk "the American people" into receiving his monumental gift, he had to persuade "the people of France" to pay for it. Bartholdi and his confederate, the French politician Édouard René de Laboulaye, formed an organization called the French-American Union in 1875 and sought donations in both countries.
France's national government did not contribute, but thousands of French schoolchildren made small donations. A copper company donated the metal sheets that would form the statue's skin.
But these donations were not enough. More successful was a lottery held by the French-American Union, with prizes donated by Paris merchants. At every stage of the fundraising, Bartholdi felt insulted by the lack of public enthusiasm and the absence of "official" assistance. But he was flexible enough to do what was necessary. Ultimately, he filled the gap by doing what we still do with monuments today: He charged admission and sold souvenirs. People who were less than eager to donate money were happy to pay to see the inside of the incomplete statue’s head or climb to the top of the torch in the not-yet-attached arm.
Does any of this mean that the Statue of Liberty fails to represent either liberty or the American people? Methodological individualism would require us to say that a group of French individuals funded the construction of the statue, and a different group of American individuals funded the base on which she now stands—its foundation dug into an island given to the project by yet a third group of individuals in the U.S. government. The American government ended up owning the statue, and therefore “the American people” own it in that euphemistic, grammar-school-civics-class sense. But in fact, there is a way in which the Statue of Liberty can legitimately be said to be American, and populist, and maybe even libertarian.
After Bartholdi and Laboulaye failed to get anyone in America especially excited about the project, the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer began a popular campaign for private donations to complete the base of the statue. His campaign attracted more than 120,000 contributors. Most gave less than a dollar.
“We must raise the money!” Pulitzer announced in a March 16, 1885, editorial in the New York World. “Let us not wait for the millionaires to give this money. It is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America.”
The U.S. government provided the island the statue now stands on, but they were stingy with “the people’s money” in a way that warms a libertarian’s heart.
The real people’s money—money voluntarily donated by individual people themselves—made the American monument possible.
So the statue, it turns out, was funded as much by French gamblers and entertainment seekers as by schoolchildren and shopkeepers; and on this side of the Atlantic, the final funds came from American newspaper readers. To the French, the project was Bartholdi’s, not theirs. But for Americans, by the end, the statue was ours.
Pulitzer may have joined Bartholdi in the rhetoric of nationalism and populism, but it was capitalism that finally erected the great American symbol of liberty.