Events and People

Delayed Centennial Gift

One unusual attraction at the Centennial was a disembodied copper arm bearing a torch. Forty two feet high, it was a portion of a sculpture by French artist Frederic Bartholdi entitled “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Visitors could pay 50 cents to climb a ladder to the top of the torch. The kiosk at its base offered brochures and subscription information. When complete, the literature boasted, the statue would be just over 150 feet tall from foot to torch. The people of France had already offered to pay to complete the rest of the statue. All Americans had to do was to pay for the construction of a base, hopefully built on an island in New York harbor.

Bartholdi dreamed of giving America a 100th birthday present since 1865. The project’s chief promoter, jurist and poet Edouard de Laboulaye, felt that the abolition of slavery following the Civil War proved that America indeed could live up to its original promise of liberty and justice for all. He was also disappointed that earlier French experiments in democracy had failed; his nation was now under the rule of Emperor Napoleon III.i

Bartholdi and de Laboulaye were part of a long tradition of French intellectuals, most notably Alexis de Tocqueville, who were fascinated by American democracy. France, after all, had been the crucial European supporter of American independence during the Revolutionary War. Lafayette, a young French nobleman, fought alongside General George Washington and became a surrogate son. Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin, the lead negotiator of the alliance, was the toast of French society, who lionized him as the ideal American–much to John Adams’ chagrin.

Bartholdi’s workers fashioned a Greco-Roman style likeness of Liberty out of hammered copper plates. Each plate was shaped by hand and was only 3/32 of an inch thick.ii There were two obstacles to Bartholdi’s vision, however. The first was that the copper statue could not support itself; the artist needed a skilled engineer to design an internal iron “skeleton” that allowed the statue to withstand the force of the wind. He finally found one in Auguste Gustave Eiffel, who went on to fame as designer of a 1,000 foot high tower that still graces the Paris skyline.

The second problem was the construction of the statue’s base, which the French hoped the recipients would pay for. The arm was sent to the Centennial as a part of a public relations campaign. The public could purchase subscriptions ranging from a dime to $100 to help pay for the pedestal. But the public response at the Centennial was unenthusiastic. The country had been in the grips of a massive economic depression since 1873. To many Americans, a big copper woman seemed like a frivolous gift in this time of need. Moreover, it seemed incongruous compared to such exhibits celebrating American technical prowess: the Remington typewriter, Bell’s telephone, and Corliss’s engine. And no American city seemed eager to offer her a home, including Philadelphia. After the fair was over, the arm was packed up and displayed in New York’s Madison Square. However, the response from New Yorkers was also lukewarm; the arm was shipped back to France.

It took another ten years before the American people fulfilled their end of the bargain. Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant and the editor of the New York World, had led a newspaper campaign to raise funds for the pedestal.iii Not only that, but poet Emma Lazarus wrote a poem in 1883 called “The New Colossus” to tell the American people what the statue really stood for:

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 your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The statue arrived in crates in 1885, and was formally dedicated on October 28, 1886 – just over ten years after the arm first appeared at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

Postscript: In 1918, a year after America entered World War I, Lady Liberty made a brief return to the city of her American debut. A miniature of the statue (complete with pedestal) was exhibited in front of City Hall as the centerpiece of a patriotic display promoting the war effort.


[i] “Statue of Liberty National Monument: History and Culture,” National Park Service, the Department of the Interior. Accessed May 22, 2010.

[ii] “Statue of Liberty, National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Accessed May 25, 2010.

[iii] Seymour Topping, Pulitzer biography, Joseph Putlizer, 1847-1911. Accessed May 24, 2010.