The Agendas Behind the Monuments


Sculptors for both the Statue of Liberty and Lady Freedom designed their lady liberties in the context of their own beliefs of art and freedom, contingent upon their personal backgrounds and exposure to aesthetic techniques. They also worked under the watchful eye of their patrons, each of whom envisioned the statues in light of their own political agendas and concepts of American freedom. Even before the first sketches were drawn, outside pressures and expectations began to dictate the form of these lady liberties, shaping them into what would be considered acceptable icons of the American ideal.


Lady Freedom

Lady Freedom's creation serves as a poignant example. Vivien Green Fryd, in her deconstructions of the meaning behind public sculptures, points to a revealing narrative behind the evolution of her form. Thomas Crawford, an American sculptor living in Rome, was commissioned to design the statue in 1855, just as construction on the U.S. Capitol was nearing completion. With the U.S. Government as his patron, Crawford reported to two men: Captain Montgomery Meigs of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and his boss, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.

Davis, as we know, became president of the Confederacy just four years later, the executive of a state at war with the very government for which he had served. Even during construction of the Capitol--a supposed symbol of America's unification and strength--it was impossible to ignore the rumblings of disunion and violence shaking the country. As a Mississippi plantation owner, Davis vehemently argued for the right to own slaves, as well as the extension of slavery into newly occupied states. He was well-versed in the political power of symbols and rhetoric regarding slavery.

Understanding Davis' background, the evolution of Crawford's design for Lady Freedom provides a telling irony. In his first sketch for the statue (altered slightly from renderings by the Capitol's architect, Thomas U. Walter), Crawford chose to favor an armed personification of peace and victory, complete with an olive branch and laurel wreaths. He changed his mind within a few months, however, and sent Meigs a letter describing what he considered a more final version: an "Armed Liberty" with a shield of the United States, a sword and a circlet of stars around her liberty cap. The statue's imperialistic stance, revealed by Freedom's shield and sword, paralleled the agenda of Manifest Destiny engulfing the United States at the time.

Davis approved of Crawford's design, with one exception: the liberty cap. The people of the United States, Davis argued, had never been enslaved; the use of the cap, therefore, was misleading and dangerous. He requested that a helmet be used instead, to signify America's victory over tyranny, "her cause triumphant" (Fryd, 108). Davis was aware that abolitionist paintings had already appropriated the liberty cap as a symbol of hope for the emancipation of America's slaves. The cap's charged meaning cut against Davis' own political agenda for the statue.

Meigs, a Northerner with strong feelings about the immorality of slavery, swallowed his ethics and dutifully followed his boss's demands. He ordered Crawford to change the statue, and Crawford did not argue. The irony of the statue itself--a symbol of freedom within a land legalizing slavery--was immediately denied a direct voice. Or, in Fryd's words,

Thomas Crawford allowed his statue to fall victim to Southern suppression of potentially threatening symbols. As a result, he created a monument of compromise manifest even in the title; the work is identified by government publications as Statue of Freedom rather than its more appropriate title, Armed Liberty,. Politics erode the work's meaning, and with each concession made by the artist, the work's iconography became more obscured. (Fryd, 113)

A second irony followed: In 1863, at the close of the Civil War, President Lincoln adopted Lady Freedom to serve his own political agenda. Hoisting the monument to the Capitol dome, Lincoln hailed Lady Freedom as a symbol of the country's unification "under Northern hegemony, a meaning that Jefferson Davis, now president of the Confederacy, obviously had never intended" (Fryd, 113).


The Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty was created out of similar political struggles. The simple tale is that the generous French offered Liberty as a gift, honoring America's cherished ideals of freedom and opportunity for all. The true circumstances, of course, were much more convoluted. The idea for the Statue of Liberty first took hold of the imagination of its sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, during a dinner party at the home of Eduoard-Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye, a French intellectual and activist who hoped to sponsor an enormous monument that might serve as propaganda against the conservative leaders of the then shaky French government (Trachtenberg, 28). Bartholdi had always wanted to create a colossal, awesome structure, and Laboulaye named him to create what Laboulaye envisioned as an powerful political lever for shaping French government and society.

The first conversations with Laboulaye occurred in 1871, more than fifteen years before the Statue of Liberty would actually stand within New York Harbor. A lot of arm-twisting for funds took place in the meantime, along with two trips to the United States, and a variety of differing sketches for the statue. At the sametime, Laboulaye managed to rise quickly to prominence within the French government, pushing an amendment through the chambers of parliament that essentially called for the establishment of republican status for France. The result: the Third Republic. To fortify their regime, Third Republic leaders strongly advocated the completion of Bartholdi's statue. What better way to cement their image of France, writes historian Marvin Trachtenberg,

than with a truly grandiose monument linking the history and destiny of France with the great modern republican state, the America that had not only triumphed over its internal enemies but was ascendant in every sphere, already marked to be one of the great world powers? (Trachtenberg, 30).

Bartholdi manipulated the Statue of Liberty to ensure coherence with this agenda. He positioned her within New York Harbor to face outward toward Europe (and particularly, France), looking across the Atlantic in hope that Europe's countries might soon realize her strength. Not laden with the swords and shields of war and imperialism, but instead standing resolute with a torch to "enlighten the world" to democracy, the Statue of Liberty was built to be an icon of France's republican ideals. Someday, Laboulaye and his followers hoped, their country would grow stronger by recognizing her strength.

Within the United States, however, the Statue of Liberty was interpreted entirely differently. Instead of the great symbol of opportunity it would someday stand to be, the eminent arrival of the statue produced not much more than a great headache. During his visits to the United States, Bartholdi had secured promises from several prominent citizens that a giant pedestal would be erected as her perch. By the time Liberty was ready to be shipped to the United States, however, little progress had been made. Just as America was ill-prepared for the masses of immigrants it would soon host, the country was unprepared for the Statue that would someday sing their welcome. It took the grassroots efforts of Joseph Pulitizer and his New York World to pull together enough money--sometimes sent in the form of single dollar bills--to finish the pedestal. By 1886, after much political and financial finagling, the Statue of Liberty was erected and dedicated amid a grand ceremony on Bedloe's Island. President Grover Cleveland and several local politians addressed an audience of thousands, and the Statue was finally unveiled.