Taking Liberties With An American Goddess

Mocked, martyred and marketed, our favorite statue is still hard at work “enlightening the world”

It was, one reporter wrote, like "a hundred Fourths of July" — the air ringing with tugboat whistles, shouts and marching bands. A speech by New York's Senator William Evarts could hardly be heard; when he paused, an impatient crowd burst into applause. Perched high above, inside his 302-foot masterpiece, French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi heard the cheers and prematurely let loose a tricolor veil from the stern face of his creation, Liberty Enlightening the World.

Even before that day in October 1886, the Statue of Liberty was seized upon as a national symbol, more identified with America than Britannia has ever been with Britain or Marianne with France. Bartholdi, showing remarkable foresight, secured the rights to his design — and it surely paid off. Greeting shiploads of new immigrants, Liberty was the obvious choice to illustrate guides to citizenship. On the assumption that patriotism sells (how times have changed!), she was used to pitch products from cigarettes and sewing thread to wafers and to urge young men to get into uniform, if only as Boy Scouts. She has been saluted and skewered by editorial cartoonists, mocked and martyred, admonished and admired, and even, at times, disrobed.

But despite wanton exploitation of the good lady, she remains the potent symbol of American-style freedom and inclusiveness Bartholdi had in mind. In May 1989, pro-democracy demonstrators in China wheeled a 33-foot Styrofoam-and-plaster Liberty into Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Tanks easily ran the "Goddess of Democracy" down — but the hope she represented has proved more durable.

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