From the moment of its dedication, the Statue of Liberty has been an enigmatic monument, a powerful symbol of the tensions between national independence and universal human rights.

Statue of Liberty, ca. 1905.
Statue of Liberty, ca. 1905. [Library of Congress]

The experience of the old is not a motor: it is only a lamppost, warning against dangers; the light that illuminates the long path ahead is you, the youth, who are holding its torch; it is you who are to illuminate the future and its obscurities.
—Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, July 30, 1898

In late October 1886, a French delegation arrived in New York for the inauguration of a colossal monument. It was the tallest in the world, taller than the column in the Place Vendôme, and more than twice as tall as the statue of San Carlo Borromeo in Arona, Italy (pedestals included). 1 Compared to the new statue, which rose 305 feet high and weighed more than two hundred tons, the gigantic Bavaria — an imposing woman with an oak wreath in her raised left hand, erected in Munich in 1850 — now seemed “a shadow of herself.” 2 The New York statue had no trace of the aggressive femininity of the German Valkyries. With a stern, almost severe face staring straight ahead, and her right arm outstretched to lift a burning torch, the figure of a robed woman rather recalled a Teutonic warrior raising his sword to the skies. No wonder that Karl Rossmann, the unlucky hero of Franz Kafka’s Amerika, at first mistook the statue’s torch for a weapon: “The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven.” 3 The military fort on which she was sited and the surrounding cannons were menacing enough; not to mention her skin, made from the kind of copper sheets also used to make bullets and guns.

The massive statue, designed by the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, was a gift from France to the United States; she was named Liberté éclairant le monde: Liberty Enlightening the World.

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For almost a week foul weather had threatened, and on October 28, the day of the official dedication, New Yorkers awoke under a leaden sky. A bad start, commented the acerbic Times of London, and it was hard to disagree. A rain-drenched celebration meant no fireworks and more police; those who had rented balconies weeks in advance to watch the parade would be disappointed; those who had taken off work would now have to stand, soaking, in the downpour. No one could have deplored the lousy weather as much as the man in charge of the parade, General Charles Pomeroy Stone, who had for six years supervised construction of the statue and its pedestal on what was then called Bedloe’s Island. Stone had seen much in an extraordinarily adventurous life. A graduate of West Point, he had served in the Mexican War. He tried a banking career in San Francisco, and directed an ill-fated surveying expedition to Mexico. On the eve of the Civil War, Stone was serving as Inspector General of the Washington Militia; in charge of security for the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, he unraveled a conspiracy against the president-elect. Stone joined the Union Army and for his actions in D.C. was swiftly promoted to high rank. Accused (probably unjustly) of causing the defeat of Ball’s Bluff in 1861, he spent six months in solitary detention at Fort Lafayette in Brooklyn. After his decommission Stone traveled to Africa where he served as chief of staff to the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan; there his military career ended ingloriously, under the fire of British bombs.

All along the parade route, recent immigrants were jostling to join the flag-waving procession.

Mysteries and suspicions followed him back to America and were surrounding him still that October morning. At ten o’clock, “handsome and erect” in his dress uniform, he entered 57th Street ready to lead the parade. 4 Moving down Fifth Avenue, the parade grew into a long column with more than two miles of regular troops, resplendent with swords and medals. The troops were followed by military bands, the New York Times noted, “somber and sad and thin, looking as though they had been packed away in a damp trunk some time about the centennial, with no camphor, and had just emerged, somewhat moldy and careworn and a little moth-eaten, but amazingly enthusiastic and discordant.” 5 Following the military marchers were the “sons of France”— French societies and their Franco-American counterparts — and “the Judges and Governors, the Mayors, the veterans of wars,” as well as the famous police forces of Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Next in line were the higher ranks of the masonic orders of the Knights of Pythias and the Knights Templar, whose march was so swift that it looked like the passing of a “comet” that burned its way past and swept seaward, “dissolving like a dream.” 6

All along the parade route, the side streets were crowded with groups of recent immigrants jostling to join the flag-waving procession, while ordinary people everywhere were scouting for comfortable places from which to view the event. Some had set up small stands, offering to sell seats for a dollar. Fifth Avenue in that era was a stronghold of what the contemporary sociologist Thorstein Veblen would soon describe as the “leisure class.” But on this exceptional day it was the poorer citizens, from tenements on the Lower East Side, who were out in force, perching on the grand entrances of the imposing houses. Bands of youths were milling about outside the French Renaissance-style chateau that the railroad magnate William K. Vanderbilt had built to advance his beautiful wife’s social ambitions; others were clambering up the walls that connected the adjoining villas of John Jacob Astor and his brother William. With the exception of tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard, none of the New York barons would emerge from their mansions to expose themselves to public scrutiny or to salute Stone and the marchers. It was their servants who would join the procession in honor of the Statue of Liberty.

There is often a tension implicit in such public events. Historians and anthropologists have argued that ceremonies are in essence a type of transgression. Ancient Rome would open its avenues to the triumphant troops of a victorious emperor, who would stage a “peaceful invasion” of the city in ritual violation of its demilitarized status. 7 The civic advantages are clear: not only do the sanctioned crossings of social boundaries during festivals help secure good conduct in normal times; they also enact the risks that communities must take in order to construct collective memories and form a “body politic.” 8 Carnivalesque “revolts” enable a civic entity to underscore its unity and reaffirm its political structures.

The 1880s were turbulent years in America. The threat of social revolution had become palpable.

One might still wonder why the citizens of New York would bring troops into their streets and let the poor so near the lustrous doors of the wealthy and thus risk social unrest for the mere inauguration of a foreign monument. One might wonder what kinds of collective memory they hoped to create; what made this monument so important. Certainly there were good reasons why Stone and the parade marched past the grand houses of Fifth Avenue. The statue’s principal sponsors were in fact wealthy families in France and America, with the French paying for the statue and the Americans for the pedestal. And yet other groups — immigrants, feminists, the poor and working classes— had made their offerings as well, many in response to a fundraising campaign organized by the Hungarian-born Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, that attracted more than 100,000 donations, including some of less than one dollar. By the time of the parade, the colossal lady had inspired a wide following; as the New York Tribune put it, many who joined the festivities felt “a kind of proprietary interest in the celebration.” 9 Did they regard the statue as a symbol of their own struggles for rights, for equality, for dignity?

Drawing by W.P. Snyder of the Statue of Liberty's pedestal under construction on Bedloe's Island, with sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, inset, from Harper's Weekly, June 6, 1885.
The pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, under construction on Bedloe’s Island; with a portrait of sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, inset. Drawing by W.P. Snyder, from Harper’s Weekly, June 6, 1885. [Wikimedia]

Left: Statue of Liberty under construction in Paris, ca. 1884. Right: Frederic Auguste Bartholdi's U.S. Patent, ca, 1879.
Left: Statue of Liberty under construction in Paris, ca. 1884. [Wikimedia] Right: Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s U.S. Patent. [Wikimedia]

Left: Head of the Statue of Liberty on display at the Exposition Universelle, Paris; photograph by Albert Ferique, ca. 1883. Right: Torch of the Statue of Liberty on display at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia.
Left: Statue of Liberty prototype on display at the 1878 Exposition Universelle, Paris; photograph by Albert Ferique, ca. 1883. [Wikimedia] Right: Model of the torch of the Statue of Liberty on display at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia. [Wikimedia]

The statue is indeed an enigmatic monument, speaking at once to rich and poor, established and marginal, men and women. To a great degree these contradictions characterized the contemporary scene. The 1880s were turbulent years in America. The threat of social revolution had become palpable. Just five months before the parade in New York, a rally of workers in Chicago who were striking for the eight-hour work day had become a scene of death and violence when a homemade bomb was thrown into the crowd at Haymarket Square. The subsequent trial and conviction of eight anarchists, five of whom were immigrants from Germany, served to deepen the widespread sentiment that foreign-born radicals were provoking public disorder. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and ethnicity had long run deep in the American grain; now prejudice against foreign workers was joining those other bigotries. In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery, yet African Americans were still profoundly marginalized. Although women had won civil constitutional rights, they were banned from voting in most states and all federal elections. The bloody Indian Wars were forcing Native Americans onto reservations. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, imposing a ten-year moratorium on the immigration of Chinese laborers, the very first law forbidding a particular group from entering the United States. 10

The specter of rebellious freedom thus loomed over the festooned streets of New York on that day in October. As the New York Tribune reported:

Among the thousands who looked on the big demonstration there were many whose acquaintance with the American style of liberty was a matter of a few weeks or months. Here were a few Bulgarians on their way back to their country to fight, if necessary, for their freedom. How their bosoms must have swelled with patriotic pride when they thought of the day when they too might have a Liberty! Yonder were a dozen Russians who no longer feared the wrath of Alexander, the great white Czar. There stood a group of Anarchists and Socialists glad that they could stand up as men [and] say what they pleased … without putting their necks in danger. Irishmen cheered for Parnell and Erin in their hearts while their tongues shouted for American freedom. 11

The reporter’s account may have been saccharine, but it was spot on. The Russian expatriate Emma Goldman, who had arrived in America as a political exile in December 1885, captured the mood in her memoir. “Ah, there she was, the symbol of hope, of freedom, of opportunity!” Goldman exclaimed upon first seeing the statue. “She held her torch high to light the way to the free country, the asylum for the oppressed of all lands.” 12

That a statue sponsored by wealthy New Yorkers should inspire so much popular affection among expatriates and immigrants is perhaps its chief mystery. For the statue is not necessarily a benign figure. As the cultural critic Robert Harbison has argued, “An extended arm is surprisingly frequent in statues trying to impress us, and it is usually threatening. … Liberty’s gesture is not so inevitably consoling. A warning it might be — ‘Go back!’ or a plea ‘We can’t see here. Bring light.’” 13 Perhaps one source of the statue’s appeal was its own status as a foreigner, an exile; perhaps another was its imposing combination of femininity and power. And it seems also likely that immigrants and other marginalized people were attracted to the monument because it did not feature any of the iconic symbols of American patriotism, such as the flag or the bald eagle. Notably, the tablet in Liberty’s left hand is not the U.S. Constitution or any document symbolizing law and justice; instead it is engraved “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI.” Lady Liberty holds the Declaration of Independence, the radical statement of individual and national liberty signed by American revolutionaries on July 4, 1776, as they prepared for war against England. Half a century after that fateful day, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, described it as “an instrument, pregnant with our own and the fate of the world … may it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.” 14

The monument features no iconic symbols of American order, no flag or eagle. The tablet in Liberty’s left hand is not the Constitution but the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson did not anticipate that the Declaration would be used to legitimize internal wars. And yet, according to historian David Armitage in his book on the famous document, “Beginning in the late 1820s, various groups across the United States imitated the Declaration as they pressed their own particular claims against a range of domestic — and occasionally foreign — tyrants and oppressors.” 15 Surely this was inevitable, and by 1852, in his famous speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” the reformer Frederick Douglass would argue that the Declaration asserted radical principles of freedom and equality not yet recognized by American laws; that it was therefore “the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny … The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” 16

Statue of Liberty, photograph by Jack E. Boucher, ca. 2006.
Statue of Liberty, photograph by Jack E. Boucher, ca. 2006. [Library of Congress]

Associating the Statue of Liberty with the Declaration was thus one way of arming the colossus, much as the Greeks had armed their Trojan horse. The document championed radical ideals being embraced globally by oppressed people seeking independence from colonial powers and autocratic leaders but which had not yet been truly assimilated by the U.S. political or legal system. It is hardly surprising that American suffragists would criticize the statue as an expression of hypocrisy. At a meeting of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, the day before the inauguration, the group agreed that the monument “points afresh to the cruelty of woman’s present position, since it is proposed to represent Freedom as a majestic female form in a State where not one woman is free.” 17 Nor is it surprising that the Chinese would be similarly affronted. In 1885, the writer and exile Saum Song Bo wrote a letter of protest, expressing dismay that the Chinese were being asked to contribute to the “Pedestal Fund of the Bartholdi Statue of Liberty,” given that Chinese immigrants did not enjoy the full rights of citizenship.

That statue represents Liberty holding a torch which lights the passage of those of all nations who come into this country. But are the Chinese allowed to come? As for the Chinese who are here, are they allowed to enjoy liberty as men of all other nationalities enjoy it? Are they allowed to go about everywhere free from the insults, abuse, assaults, wrongs and injuries from which men of other nationalities are free? 18

Almost two decades after the statue was inaugurated, no less a figure than Henry James would write in his anthology The American Scene that there was an evident “margin” between what Americans had accomplished and what they could accomplish in the future. To James, who had spent so much of his life abroad, this margin was the very essence of the United States, a “vaster lake of the materially possible,” awaiting to be illuminated.

Once that torch is at all vividly lighted it flares, for any pair of open eyes, over every scene … Not by any means that the Margin always affects him as standing for the vision of a possible greater good than what he sees in the given case any more than as standing for a possible greater evil; these differences are submerged in the immense fluidity; they lurk confused, disengaged, in the mere looming mass of the more, the more and more to come. 19

After marching down Fifth Avenue, Stone’s parade turned left to reach Madison Square, where a wooden viewing stand had been erected for the U.S. president and various high federal and municipal authorities as well as French dignitaries. “Do not look for anything resembling something one could find in Europe on a similar occasion,” advised one member of the French delegation. “Everything in the States is made simply, cheaply, summarily.” The square was thronged when, around eleven o’clock, Grover Cleveland made a solemn entrance. French commentators described the American president as “a bit fat … with a placid and serene figure.” 20 Local reporters described him as seeming “bored but resigned … regarding with a stone stare his surroundings and showing apparently little interest in the proceedings about to begin.” 21 Yet all around there was excitement. When the military band struck its first notes, and the measured beats of La Marseillaise were intermingling with the more fluid rhythm of Yankee Doodle, there arose happy cries from the crowds of onlookers, who waved handkerchiefs and threw their hats in the air. Ladies, forgetful of hairstyles, put their umbrellas aside and stood on tiptoe to get a better view.

Inaugural festivities for the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, October 28, 1886.
Inaugural festivities for the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, including a military and naval salute, October 28, 1886. [Library of Congress]

After the military show on Madison Square, the procession continued along Fifth Avenue and on to Park Row, taking a turn to stop outside the offices of the New York World, the newspaper owned by Joseph Pulitzer, who had played such a crucial role in raising money for the pedestal. Finally the parade proceeded to Broadway and crossed to the Battery. By now the heavy rain had soaked the uniforms, the flags hanging from balconies, the colorful festoons. It all made for a rather depressing sight, with banners and elegant decorations everywhere ruined by water. At Battery Park, a crowd had been waiting for hours — spectators anxious to find a spot from which to watch the fireworks and light shows scheduled for four o’clock, or families waiting to board a ferry for Bedloe’s Island or Governor’s Island to see the ceremony up close. Boats bobbed around the docks, half shrouded in the mist. The clock had just struck one when the crack of cannon fire pierced the fog; after a moment of silence the shot was echoed by a volley of twenty or more shots. It was the salute, the feu de joie coming from the USS Gedney to signal the beginning of the naval parade on the Hudson River. The mist, however, was so thick that the ship was unable to lead the parade and fell back at least twice before something resembling a procession formed in its wake.

Around two o’clock, the fog lifted briefly and the magnificent statue was visible at last; the eyes were still covered by a French flag hanging from her crown. At Bedloe’s Island, workers had been busy since seven in the morning. Over the speakers’ stand there hung an enormous shield bearing the French Tricolor on its right and the American Stars and Stripes on its left; on the shield were inscribed the word “liberty” and an olive branch. Between the flags there was the fasces-and-axe, a symbol of magisterial power dating back to classical Rome. Thus was marked the end of the carnivalesque celebration during which the poor had been allowed to venture near the homes of the rich to affirm their sense of ownership of the statue, and women had been suffered to protest against patriarchal privileges. Now came the moment for dignitaries and diplomats to dispel the idea that the statue was a beacon of future progress and to replace this with the rival conviction that the monument was a symbol of the rule of law, of order and establishment.

Invitation to the inauguration of the Statue of Liberty, designed by Tiffany & Co.
Invitation to the inauguration of the Statue of Liberty, designed by Tiffany & Co.

A gunshot signaled the beginning of the ceremony on Bedloe’s Island. The Reverend Richard S. Storrs, pastor of the Congregational Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn, took the stand to invoke a solemn prayer for the statue. “We pray that the Liberty which it represents may continue to enlighten with beneficent instruction,” he said, “and to bless with majestic and wide benediction, the nations which have part in this work of renown; that it may stand as a symbol of perpetual concord.” 22 After the reverend came a Frenchman familiar to American audiences, but not because of the statue. Elegant in appearance, with bright white hair and a thick mustache, Count Ferdinand de Lesseps was France’s most famous businessman. He was then 81 but looked many years younger; his beautiful and much younger wife had borne him nine children. In 1857 de Lesseps had created a joint stock company to finance the digging of the Suez Canal and succeeded in selling all the shares before the project was even completed. More recently he was attempting to repeat his canal-building success in the isthmus of Panama.

The same international bankers who had financed the Statue were also  underwriting the Panama Canal.

De Lesseps had the Panama affair in mind while addressing the audience in front of the statue. In fact the ties between the statue and the isthmus ran deep; the same international bankers and businessmen who had financed the monument were also involved in underwriting the Panama Canal. But while the statue was now finished, work on the canal had languished for years. In Central America, the company’s directors and workers were dying of yellow fever by the day even as the mountains and the rain forest seemed to thwart every effort of human industry to construct the passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. With his flair for publicity, de Lesseps had no doubt calculated the impact of his appearance at a ceremony celebrating the friendship between France and America; his participation was intended to boost the spirits of French investors and restore the value of their shares. Some magazines and newspapers even insinuated that de Lesseps agreed to join in the celebration only because he was already on his way to Panama. Nonetheless de Lesseps well understood how tenaciously the Americans protected their economy from external threats; that day he thought he could overcome their patriotism by promising that “the flag of the United States, with its thirty-eight stars, will float beside the banner of the Independent States of South America, and will form in the New World, for the benefit of mankind, the prolific and pacific alliance of the Franco-Latin and Anglo-Saxon races.” 23

After the commercial emphasis of de Lesseps’s speech, the task of reintroducing historical gravitas fell to Senator William Maxwell Evarts, a descendant of Roger Sherman, one of the most illustrious signers of the Declaration of Independence. Known for his shabby attire, Evarts was the founder of one of New York’s most prestigious law firms. He was also a politician who in the 1850s had joined the newly founded Republican Party and put his talents in the service of the abolitionist cause. As Secretary of State in the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, Evarts helped pursue plans for America’s commercial expansion in South America and Asia; he also urged the president not to allow “any European power” to control any canal across Panama and argued that “an interoceanic canal … will be … virtually a part of the coast line of the United States.” 24 But in his speech on Bedloe’s Island, Evarts refrained from controversy; that day he was content to applaud the political affinities between France and America and their shared love of liberty.

Stereograph of "Bartholdi's colossal Statue of Liberty presented to Americans by the French people, Bedloes Island, New York Harbor."
Stereograph of “Bartholdi’s colossal Statue of Liberty presented to Americans by the French people, Bedloe’s Island, New York Harbor.” [Library of Congress]

Evarts had barely time to finish before an official standing by the stage waved a white handkerchief to signal the end of his speech and the unveiling of the monument. A rope was pulled — Bartholdi, the sculptor, was one of the pullers —and the “banner folded itself like a curtain drawn aside and disappeared through the crown adorning the brow of the Goddess.” 25 Guns on ramparts along the shore and on warships in the harbor shot thunderous blanks. With the gusty wind, the smoke from steamships, and the smell of gunpowder, the whole scene had an undeniably bellicose atmosphere which evoked the American victory in the Revolutionary War. As the Tribune recorded:

From the guns on the ramparts on shore bright flashes of flame … rent the gray blue of the atmosphere with scarlet tongues. Great columns of smoke rose from the war vessels and floating upward made a halo half circling the island and completing with the mist the obscurity in which was hid the immense flotilla that thickened the waters of the bay. But if the civic boats that lent their presence to the occasion were unseen in the fog that accompanied the thunders of the artillery, they were not unheard, for every steam whistle seemed to be striving to burst its throat in tumult. 26

It was at this apocalyptic moment, amidst the roar of cannon fire, that a small vessel carrying a group of enterprising suffragists reached Bedloe’s Island. As it happened, although municipal authorities had denied the women an official vessel, they had managed to rent a private boat. Amid the general confusion, the women gathered on deck to declare loudly that “in erecting a statue of Liberty embodied as a woman in a land where no woman has political liberty, men have shown a delightful inconsistency which excites the wonder and admiration of the opposite sex.” 27 Thus in a moment of jubilation, as Americans were glorifying their historic triumph over despotism, these women claimed the statue as a symbol of their own crusade, transforming an icon of the struggle for national independence into a symbol of the struggle for human rights. Born on the field of battle, the statue seemed to call for war even in times of peace — a war of women against men who would deny them equal rights, a war of competing mercantile interests for control of a great canal, a war of immigrants and exiles against those who would close down borders.

Immigrants on deck of steamer Germanic; wood engraving that appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, ca. 1887.
Immigrants on deck of the steamer Germanic; wood engraving that appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, ca. 1887. [Library of Congress]

At this point the friendly face of the next speaker provided some light relief. Known as “Uncle Jumbo” to his nephews and the “Big One” to his political allies in the Democratic party, Grover Cleveland had begun his career as the mayor of Buffalo, New York. When elected to the presidency, he knew almost nothing of foreign policy. Apparently unconcerned that his Republican predecessors had laid the groundwork for expanding America’s global presence, Cleveland sought a return to the pacifism and disengagement of the Monroe Doctrine. With this goal in sight, he fought against tariffs on foreign imports and in favor of free trade; he held that the Panama Canal should be neutral and open to all nations. 28 As governor of New York, Cleveland had vetoed the state legislature’s financing of the Statue of Liberty in 1884, when the monument’s backers had run out of funds to complete the pedestal. Which perhaps helps to explain the brevity of his speech that day.

The president saw the Statue of Liberty as symbolic of the preservation of national identity and the protection of national borders.

Cleveland was at heart an old-fashioned conservative who had little use for worker strikes or suffragette protests. In his view, a good wife was “a woman who loves her husband and her country with no desire to run either.” 29 He protected American Indians as he would a species threatened with extinction; he regarded the Chinese, practically banished from the United States by the Exclusion Act, as impossible to assimilate into American society. Such views were then common, particularly the idea that every nation-state had the right to determine its own racial composition in order to “preserve itself.” 30 It was apt, then, that in accepting the gift from France on behalf of the United States, Cleveland characterized Liberty as a deity, a sentinel-goddess “keeping watch and ward before the gates of America.” 31 Thus did the American president convert the Statue of Liberty into a symbol of the preservation of national identity and the protection of national borders.

But the inaugural celebrations were not quite over. That evening, the prominent and powerful would reconvene for a private gathering in one of New York’s most fashionable restaurants, Delmonico’s, where a last, crucial reading of the statue would be offered.

In those years New York high society was engaged in fervent debate about the intrinsic merits of European cuisine. Some swore by a good roast beef, a rack of lamb, and pudding; others put their faith in Italian or French gastronomy. Both factions happily dined together at Delmonico’s, established in 1827, in Lower Manhattan, as a small shop filled with the aroma of Cuban cigars and the pungent vapors of wine and spirits. Later the Delmonico brothers opened a larger restaurant and bought a farm on Long Island, where they grew their own produce — a first in the history of American restaurants. It was at Delmonico’s that Americans learned to eat tomatoes instead of watering them as decorative plants, and to blend Italian, French, Russian, and German cuisines. Soon the family had opened branches in the richest neighborhoods of the city; their restaurant-café on East 14th Street was the first in New York to admit women (providing they were chaperoned). 32

Left: Delmonico's, 26th Street, New York. Right: Invitation to a banquet at Delmonico's honoring the officers of the Isere, the ship that transported the Statue of Liberty from Paris to New York.
Left: Delmonico’s, 26th Street, New York, ca. 1888. [Wikimedia] Right: Invitation to a banquet at Delmonico’s honoring the officers of the Isère, the ship that transported the Statue of Liberty from Paris to New York. [via The American Menu]

That night in October 1886 it was at the Delmonico’s on 26th Street, in a private banquet room on an upper floor, that the dignitaries assembled to enjoy the culinary talents of the most famous chef of the day, Charles Ranhofer, who, like Bartholdi, hailed from Alsace. It was said that when Ranhofer prepared oysters — on chopped ice, two or three per plate, with lemon on the side and very thin crackers lightly spread with butter and smothered in hot vinegar and onion cream — their hearts were still beating when they reached the table. 33 It is likely that raw oysters were served that evening, followed by soups, one clear and one thick. Dishes reserved for grand occasions appeared in abundance: hors d’oeuvres, including timbales created in honor of de Lesseps, followed by the fish course, then a series of sorbets to refresh the palate in preparation for an English roast beef. (As the New York Tribune explained, without “the roast beef of old England, French liberty and American patriotism cannot exist.” 34) Finally there came the desserts, and the speeches.

Coudert compared the lesson embodied by the Statue of Liberty to the lesson taught by the Sermon on the Mount.

That night 210 places were laid out on five long tables decorated with a series of food sculptures. At around eleven o’clock, a distinguished lawyer stood up to speak on behalf of the American government. Frédéric Coudert was born in New York City of French origin, the son of an officer of Napoléon who had plotted against the Bourbons along with the Marquis de Lafayette. Fluent in several languages, Coudert specialized in international cases, often advising the U.S. government and sometimes acting as a proxy for the French government. International law was then little known in America, but Coudert had made a true profession of it. The cosmopolitan and idealistic profile of a Democrat like Cleveland suited him well, and he had worked often for the president; at the same time his Catholicism and his feminist sympathies raised suspicion in the administration. In his speech that night, he was careful not to betray his heterodoxy to the men and (very few) women assembled in the private room at Delmonico’s. But those who knew Coudert well understood the progressive political inclinations that underlay his remark about the statue’s femininity: “Today the statue of Liberty has become American,” he said, “It therefore enjoys all the rights of a citizen — or, rather, a female citizen … Owing to her sex, however, she can hardly vote without provoking criticism unworthy of her dignity.” 35

Statue of Liberty, via EarthCam.
Statue of Liberty, via EarthCam.

Coudert could do little to counter the paternalistic chauvinism of the party; but he did bring to the gathering a touch of religious ethics when he compared the lesson embodied by the statue to the lesson taught by the Sermon on the Mount. “I will say that this statue, with no sword, but the torch raised on high, so that all can see it, typifies all that is most striking in moral and religious instruction,” he said. “It is a poem which anyone can understand without being a poet.” 36

The sermon that Jesus preached to the multitudes was indeed revolutionary in spirit — a promise that the meek shall inherit the earth, that the poor are the “light of the world,” and that “a city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” Coudert’s reference was in fact a touchstone, a coded message. For all those present knew that Jesus’s famous teachings had inspired one of the most influential sermons in American history: the lesson preached by the Puritan John Winthrop in 1630 as he and his fellow colonists set sail from England to America in pursuit of religious liberty.

We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. … For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

In this way Coudert connected the great new monument with the struggles and ideals of the earliest European immigrants to the American continent and with their ardent wish to create a better and more just society. Coudert did not explicitly say that the statue’s torch would light the way to the city upon a hill. Yet for more than a century the Statue of Liberty has remained a potent icon of change and revolution — the revolution that liberated America from the control of a distant monarch, and the revolution that is always forming wherever people are oppressed.

Editors' Note

This essay is adapted from the opening chapter of Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty, published this month by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2018 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. It appears here with the permission of the publisher and the author.

  1. The statue of San Carlo Borromeo, known as the Sancarlone, was built in 1698 after a design by Giovan Battista Crespi. It stands 23.4 meters high on a pedestal of nearly 12 meters. The Vendôme column, also known as the Column of the Grande Armée, is 53 meters high.
  2. “A Franco-American Banquet,” The Times, November 8, 1875. Bavaria, sculpted by Ludwig Michael von Schwanthaler, is 60 feet high (with a pedestal of 28 feet) and weighs 87.36 tons.
  3. Franz Kafka, Amerika (Munich: K. Wolff, 1927), 3.
  4. “World-Lighting Liberty. The Statue Unveiled,” New York Tribune, October 29, 1886.
  5. “France’s Gift Accepted: Liberty’s Statue Unveiled on Bedloe’s Island,” New York Times, October 29, 1886.
  6. “Unveiled: Bartholdi’s Colossal Statue of Liberty,” Brooklyn’s Eagle, October 28, 1886; “France’s Gift Accepted,” New York Times, October 29, 1886.
  7. Mary Beard, The Roman Triumph (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 244–245.
  8. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968); Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine, 1969); David I. Kertzer, Ritual, Politics, and Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988); Clifford Geertz, “Centers, Kings, and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolic of Power,” in Culture and Its Creators: Essays in Honor of Edward Shils, ed. Joseph Ben-David and Terry Nichols Clark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977); Natalie Zemon Davis, “The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-Century France,” Past & Present 59 (1973): 72; Edward Muir, Ritual in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  9. “World-Lighting Liberty.”
  10. Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: Norton, 1998), 132–133; Glenn Altschuler, Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 257–258; Rudolph J. Vecoli, “The Lady and the Huddled Masses: The Statue of Liberty as a Symbol of Immigration,” in The Statue of Liberty Revisited, ed. Wilton S. Dillon and Neil G. Kotler (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 47; J. Green, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America (New York: Pantheon, 2006).
  11. “World-Lighting Liberty.”
  12. Emma Goldman, Living My Life (New York: Cosimo, 2008), 1: 11.
  13. Robert Harbison, The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable: In Pursuit of Architectural Meaning (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 54–55.
  14. Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington: n.p., 1903–1904), 16: 181–182, quoted in David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 1–2.
  15. Armitage, The Declaration of Independence, 94.
  16. Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro, speech at Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852,” in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip Sheldon Foner and Yuval Taylor (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1999), 191. For more, see William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: Norton, 1991); and John Stauffer, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (New York: Hachette, 2008), 131–241.
  17. Quoted in Polly Welts Kaufman, National Parks and the Woman’s Voice: A History (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006), 54.
  18. Saum Song Bo, “The Chinese: A Chinese View of the Statue of Liberty,” The American Missionary 39, no. 10 (1885): 290.
  19. Henry James, The American Scene (London: Chapman and Hall, 1907), 401.
  20. Charles Bigot, De Paris au Niagara: Journal de voyage d’une delegation (Paris: Dupret, 1887), 94–95.
  21. “World-Lighting Liberty.”
  22. “World-Lighting Liberty.”
  23. “World-Lighting Liberty”; “France’s Gift Accepted,” New York Times, October 29, 1886.
  24. Senate Executive Documents and Reports, no. 112, 46 Cong., 3 Sess., quoted in C.L. Barrows, William M. Evarts, Lawyer, Diplomat, Statesman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941), 364.
  25. “World-Lighting Liberty.”
  26. “World-Lighting Liberty.”
  27. “They Enter a Protest. Woman Suffragists Think the Ceremonies an Empty Farce,” New York Times, October 29, 1886.
  28. Cleveland would modify his policies early in his presidency when, in March 1885, uprisings in Colombia enabled rebels to seize American ships. To restore order, Cleveland sent more than 1,200 troops to the coasts of the isthmus — the largest naval operation since the Mexican War of 1846. Alyn Brodosky, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character (London: Macmillan, 2000), 18; Daniel. H. Wicks, “Dress Rehearsal: United States Intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, 1885,” Pacific Historical Review 49, no. 4 (1980): 581.
  29. Grover Cleveland, “Woman’s Mission and Woman’s Clubs,” Ladies Home Journal 22, no. 3 (1905): 3. See also Cleveland, “Would Woman Suffrage Be Unwise?” Ladies Home Journal 22, no. 11 (1905): 7.
  30. For a discussion of the history of immigration debates, see M. N. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 11.
  31. “World-Lighting Liberty.”
  32. Judith Choate and James Canora, Dining at Delmonico’s: The Story of America’s Oldest Restaurant (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2008), 11–19.
  33. Mark Kurlansky, The Big Oyster: New York on the Half Shell (New York: Ballantine Books, 2006), 220.
  34. “Guests of the Merchants. The French Delegation at Dinner,” New York Tribune, October 29, 1886.
  35. “French Visitors Dined. Some Eloquent Responses to the Toasts,” New York Times, October 29, 1886.
  36. “French Visitors Dined. Some Eloquent Responses to the Toasts.”
Francesca Lidia Viano, “Sentinel,” Places Journal, October 2018. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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