Liberty as a woman

Throughout history, liberty has been depicted as a woman.

The Roman Republic built a temple to Libertas, the Goddess of Liberty, on Aventine Hill, and her face appeared on the denarius silver coin -- according to the Bible, the denarius was a day's pay for a laborer. Historian Nancy Jo Fox explained, "the Goddess of Liberty appeared in art as a robed female holding a scepter, indicating sovereignty over herself, with a liberty-loving cat at her feet alongside a broken jug (shattered symbol of confinement) and crowned by Phrygian cap, the pilleus libertatis, bestowed upon slaves when granted freedom."

After the New World was discovered, Fox noted, “the promise of great wealth, strange virgin lands, religious freedom, or the thrill of adventure appealed to many who wished to better their lives even while risking great danger. Danger came from the native Indians who, while enemies of the Colonists, were viewed by the white man as exotic symbols not only of the new continent but also of the unrestricted, natural life that Europeans could find in this new country. Just as females had come to symbolize the other major continents – Asia, Africa and Europe – it was the American Indian Queen who first personified the New World.”

The Indian Queen, or Indian Princess, appeared on maps, books, newspapers, engravings, embroidery and coins as a big woman wearing a headdress, holding a tomahawk and bow and arrow, sometimes mounted on a llama, armadillo or alligator. When the American colonies struggled to be free, she came to symbolize them rather than the continent. She subsequently served as the principal symbol of the United States until about 1815.

By then, with interest in Greek culture and design in vogue, the female figure was depicted as a Greek goddess. “The Princess’s headdress changed from eagle feathers to ostrich feathers worn in a turban, bonnet, or helmut,” Fox observed. “This new classical lady with flowing brown hair was tall, full breasted, and draped in a toga and cloak to her ankles, revealing her feet clad in sandals. The Plumed Goddess also held the caduceus, the staff of Mercury with two snakes intertwined around it.” Mercury was a messenger, and he symbolized neutrality among possible adversaries as America aimed to remain neutral and stay out of European wars. The Greek goddess appeared in paintings and engravings, on fabrics and cookware. The Greek goddess was carved on weathervanes, shop markers and ship figureheads. As the iron industry developed, Greek goddesses were made of iron.

In France, following the Revolution of 1830, Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) painted Liberty Leading the People. Trained in the low key neoclassical style, Delacroix embraced bright colors and dramatic subjects, and he emerged as the most important French Romantic artist. Liberty Leading the People, displayed at the Louvre museum, shows a strong woman with bare breasts, holding a musket in her left hand and the French flag in her right hand, walking amidst the bodies of fallen revolutionaries.

In 1855, the American sculptor Thomas Crawford, then living in Rome, was commissioned to design a statue of Lady Freedom which would go atop the U.S. Capitol, then being constructed. Crawford proposed an “Armed Liberty” design, including a shield, a sword and stars around a liberty cap. But a liberty cap was a symbol of freed slaves, and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the Mississippi man who later became President of the Confederacy, objected. The liberty cap was replaced by a helmut with an eagle headdress. The statue was mounted on the Capitol dome in 1863. It's 19 feet, six inches tall and weighs about 15,000 pounds.

Liberty heads had begun appearing on U.S. gold coins in 1838. By the end of the 19th century, Liberty’s head appeared on “Morgan” silver dollars. Perhaps the most famous Liberty image was on the gold “double eagle,” or $20 gold piece, with a high relief image of a “striding Liberty,” a female figure designed by the American sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens (1848-1907). More than 70 million of these gorgeous gold coins were minted between 1907 and 1933.

The most famous symbol of liberty began amidst the frustration of a Frenchman at his country’s tyrannical ruler, Napoleon III. The Frenchman was Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye (1811-1883) who was a professor of comparative law. He wrote spoke out against slavery and wrote about Benjamin Franklin. It was in 1865 that he conceived the idea of a statue about libery. This would be a gift to America and a symbol of ideals suppressed by Napoleon III. One of Laboulaye’s friends, the French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), was thrilled with the idea, and by 1869 he was sketching designs. Early on, a torch became a major feature. It's believed he modelled the face of the Statue of Liberty after his mother. He took out U.S. patent #11,023 for "Design for a statue."

In 1871, Laboulaye reportedly urged Bartholdi to see America: “You will study it, you will bring back to us your impressions. Propose to our friends over there to make with us 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 toured America, meeting many of the most famous people of the day, including President Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionist Charles Sumner, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead and merchant Cyrus Field. Bartholdi’s first choice for a site was Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor.

There were fund-raising events in Paris, aimed at covering the cost of the statue. Americans, for their part, were asked to cover the cost of a pedestal. In 1877, some New Yorkers formed a committee to pursue the statue idea, and they raised about $100,000. They retained the most successful architect, Richard Morris Hunt, and he conceived an 89-foot high pedestal with a granite façade. The pedestal involving pouring 24,000 tons of concrete, the largest concrete mass ever made, which would be 52 feet, 10 inches high and 91 feet square at the bottom and 65 feet square at the top. Before construction proceeded very far, the project ran out of money.

Neither the federal government nor New York State would support the project, but the Hungarian immigrant Joseph Pulitzer, who had become a successful newspaper publisher, thought a statue of liberty was a great idea. Through the pages of his New York World, he launched a campaign to raise funds from his working class readers. He offered prizes for big contributors and held special events at the Brighton Beach race track. He published poignant letters from ordinary people who contributed a few dollars each. On August 11, 1885, a New York World headline announced “ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS!” Some 120,000 contributors had helped reach the fundraising goal in five months.

By this time, components of Bartholdi's statue had been assembled by securing some 300 copper sheets to a steel frame. The components were packed into 200 cases and shipped to New York. The statue was mounted so that she faced Europe. Initially known as "Liberty Enlightening the World," she was unveiled on October 28, 1886. More than a million people turned out on this rainy and foggy day. President Grover Cleveland led the ceremonies, and naval ships fired their guns as salutes. Some 20,000 people marched along Wall Street as office boys threw pieces of stock ticker tape out the windows of nearby office buildings, making this perhaps the first ticker tape parade. Curiously, none of the speeches mentioned immigrants, with whom the Statue of Liberty later became so closely identified.

Historian Fox noted that “The Statue of Liberty appeared in advertisements for kitchen ranges, sewing thread, paint, pens, circuses, theaters, toys, and innumerable other items…Twentieth-century painters have re-created the Statue of Liberty’s image in buttons, acrylics, enamels, plastic, metal, paper, and collages.”

In 1901, a bronze plaque was added to the base of the Statue of Liberty. It had lines written nearly two decades before by New York poet Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), the daughter of a successful Jewish sugar merchant. As a teenager, she had been encouraged by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and later Russian persecution of Jews inspired her sympathy for immigrants and her passion for justice. Her poem, "The New Colossus," had been published for the Art Loan Fund Exhibition, a project by artists and writers who helped raise money for the Statue of Liberty's pedestal. The title was a reference to the Colossus of Rhodes which, overlooking that Greek city's harbor, had been considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Lazarus went on to produce more work and corresponded with leading writers of her day including Ivan Turgenev, William James and Robert Browning. She died at 38 from cancer, but a dozen years later, as the number of immigrants surged into America, people remembered the stirring lines she had written for "The New Colossus":

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of our teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

For millions of people escaping tyranny and seeking a better life, Lady Liberty, as the Statue of Liberty came to be called, has been one of the first things they see in America, and Lazarus' immortal words still express the American dream of achieving liberty and peace.

A decade ago, Chinese dissidents built a Statue of Liberty in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, protesting communist tyranny. It was a dramatic affirmation that liberty is a dream shared by people everywhere.

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