Images of America: What does the Statue of Liberty symbolize?

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Images of America

Currier and Ives print of the Statue of LibertySOME pictures in the photo gallery Images of America have a more complicated history than we might guess—including this Currier and Ives lithograph of the Statue of Liberty.

Our question: What does the Statue of Liberty symbolize for you and your family?

Today, Americans are likely to think of immigrants when they see the 305-foot-tall base and statue—especially the millions of immigrants who crossed the Atlantic from Europe.

Did you know that association was an afterthought?

The French idea of giving a statue to the United States began at the end of the Civil War—as a way to celebrate the Union victory and the abolition of slavery. The idea originally was to honor America’s new commitment to liberty.

As the project unfolded, however, there were many American critics of this gigantic “gift,” especially when the French revealed that Americans would have to raise money to complete the project. Among other things, “we” had to pay for the gigantic base that comprises more than half of the monument’s height. Harper’s Weekly complained that it was unfair of the French to start such a huge project and then refuse to underwrite the entire effort. The New York Times went further and complained: “No true patriot can countenance any such expenditures for bronze females in the present state of our finances.”

What about the famous Emma Lazarus poem The New Colossus? Remember it? Most-memorable lines include:

“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!”

Lazarus was a well-known poet in New York who wrote the poem as part of the fund-raising effort to build the statue’s base. She donated a copy of the poem to an artists’ fund-raiser and, after that, it was largely forgotten.

The famous Currier and Ives lithograph of the statue, which is included in our photo gallery, was released in 1885 before the monument was finished. The artists’ commentary on the statue said nothing about immigrants. They focused on its cutting-edge design, writing, “The torch will display a powerful electric light, and the statue thus will present, by night as by day, an exceeding grand and imposing appearance.”

The statue was dedicated in 1886, when most Americans were not even thinking about honoring “the wretched refuse” who were “teeming” toward our shores.

But, then? Millions of our American grandparents and great-grandparents arrived at New York City and regarded this towering lady as their first American greeting. They shared the story with their families. By 1903, the Emma Lazarus poem was placed on a bronze tablet in the statue’s base.

What does the Statue of Liberty symbolize to you—and to your family—today?

Civil conversations build healthy communities …

The United America photo gallery Images of America was developed so you can freely share these inspiring images with friends. This method has been used successfully with groups nationwide to spark spirited and constructive discussions about what unites us as Americans. Then, to fully understand the 10 core values, get the book United America. So, come on! Start your own discussion …

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  1. Duncan Newcomer says

    When I recently saw the Statue on a sunny summer day with the light off the torch I thought of Moses’s burning bush and the continuity of the light of freedom.