A History of Evolving Meaning in the Statue of Liberty

It has meant different things to different people at different times, which is part of its genius.


In 1886, The Statue of Liberty was a symbol of democratic government and Enlightenment ideals as well as a celebration of the Union’s victory in the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Edouard de Laboulaye, the French political thinker, U.S. Constitution expert, and abolitionist, who first proposed the idea of a great monument as a gift from France to the United States was a firm supporter of President Abraham Lincoln and his fight for abolition. Laboulaye saw abolition not only as a way to eliminate immorality, but also as a way to protest repressive tendencies in France.

The Statue’s shackles and feet

As an abolitionist, Laboulaye was an honorary member of the Philadelphia branch (founded in 1862) of the Union League Club. The Union league Club was a group of people who were dedicated to the new Republican Party, the Union’s cause in the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery. Additionally, Laboulaye was a cofounder and president of the French Anti-Slavery Society. This society was founded in 1865. In essence, it called upon all nations to abolish slavery. Additionally, the members also raised money that was then given to newly freed slaves in the United States.

The Statue’s shackles and feet

With the abolition of slavery and the Union’s victory in the Civil War in 1865, Laboulaye’s wishes of freedom and democracy were turning into a reality in the United States. In order to honor these achievements, Laboulaye proposed that a gift be built for the United States on behalf of France. Laboulaye hoped that by calling attention to the recent achievements of the United States, the French people would be inspired to call for their own democracy in the face of a repressive monarchy.

When Laboulaye’s Statue of “Liberty Enlightening the World” was completed, it not only represented democracy but also symbolized American independence and the end of all types of servitude and oppression. A broken shackle and chain lie at the Statue’s right foot. The chain disappears beneath the draperies, only to reappear in front of her left foot, its end link broken. However, although the broken shackle is a powerful image, the meaning behind it was not yet a reality for African Americans in 1886.

This image from Puck Magazine, September 9, 1908, utilizes the likeness of the Statue of Liberty to convey the horrors African Americans experienced after the Civil War.

After the Statue’s dedication in 1886, the Black Press began to debunk romantic notions of the Statue of Liberty and American History. Racism and discrimination towards African Americans did not end after the Civil War or with the dedication of the Statue – it continued on for more than a century. As a result, the Statue was not a symbol of democratic government or Enlightenment ideals for African Americans but rather a source of pain. Instead of representing freedom and justice for all, the Statue emphasized the bitter ironies of America’s professed identity as a just and free society for all people regardless of race. From the time of the Statue’s dedication, attitudes towards the Statue in the African American community were ambivalent and uncertain.

As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in his autobiography, The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life From the Last Decade of Its First Century, he was unable to imagine the same sense of hope he assumed some immigrant arrivals had felt when he sailed past the Statue on a return trip from Europe. This hope did not pertain to his race. The fight for equality, liberty, and justice for all at this point in time had not been achieved, but rather disregarded after the Statue’s completion and dedication. Therefore, African Americans rarely used the Statue as a relevant symbol for their struggle – they were reluctant to embrace the symbol of a nation which would not fully include them as citizens. The Statue of Liberty did not help them to gain equality and justice in the truest sense – it was only the beginning.

The French Connection

An illustration of the presentation of the Statue to the U.S. Minister Levi Parsons Morton in Paris on July 4, 1881.

The Statue of Liberty was a gift from the French people commemorating the alliance of France and the United States during the American Revolution. Yet, it represented much more to those individuals who proposed the gift.

A photograph of Edouard de Laboulaye from the Galerie Contemporaine collection

In 1865, Edouard de Laboulaye(a French political thinker, U.S. Constitution expert, and abolitionist) proposed that a monument be built as a gift from France to the United States in order to commemorate the perseverance of freedom and democracy in the United States and to honor the work of the late president Abraham Lincoln. Laboulaye hoped that by calling attention to the recent achievements of the United States, the French people would be inspired to create their own democracy in the face of a repressive monarchy. In 1865, France was divided between people who were still committed to the monarchy and people who supported the Enlightenment ideals (the belief that people had natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). It was the hope of many French liberals that democracy would prevail and that freedom and justice for all would be attained.

Bartholdi in his studio, Vavin Street, Paris, 1892

In order to turn his idea into a reality, Laboulaye talked to many prominent and influential men in France. Auguste Bartholdi – a French sculptor who had recently been commissioned to make a bust of Laboulaye – greatly supported Laboulaye’s idea and was soon selected to be the sculptor of the proposed monument.

A picture entitled “The Spirit of 61. God, Our Country and Liberty!” by Currier and Ives circa 1861

“Liberty” was a controversial idea in the 19th century. To many people it suggested violence and revolution. Laboulaye and Bartholdi agreed that their monument should not be seen as leading an uprising, but rather as lighting the way, peacefully and lawfully. A key element was the name they gave to the Statue: Liberty Enlightening the World. Bartholdi’s public monuments hailed back to classical images of a powerful, honorable national authority over any ideology. His statue of “Liberty Enlightening the World” would be above conservatism and liberalism and above radical revolutions and political turmoil. She would be an international symbol of liberty, justice, and democracy. In 1871, the Statue was transformed from idea into reality – it was to be funded, built, and presented to the United States.

This project could not have happened at a better time for Laboulaye. In 1871, an uprising by members of the working and middle classes in Paris against the government was brutally crushed. Laboulaye did not support such extremism among laboring people; although he wanted to change the French government to a democratic government, he did not want to do it through violence. Despite his liberal views, Laboulaye was criticized by his colleagues because he spoke out against the violence and supported the governmental repression of the uprising. The creation of the Statue of Liberty, however, was a chance for Laboulaye to restore his reputation as a devoted liberal and democratic advocator, honor the success of liberty in the United States, and hope that the French would be inspired to fight for the same ideals.

War and Liberty

A poster of numerous U.S. Navy vessels sailing in New York Harbor during World War I entitled “Uncle Sam’s Big Fighting Ships.”

Wartime tended to diminish the celebration of the Statue as a sign of economic opportunity in the United States and even the call for universal rights for all men and women. At this moment the homeland had to be defended, and the monument came to be seen by soldiers sailing overseas as a symbol of a home to which they might never return. Stories about perceptions of the Statue during the great wars of the twentieth century show that the image served the need to sell war bonds and mobilize for the defense of the United States and its families. Returning servicemen and women were often moved by the sight of the Statue as they entered to New York Harbor following the wars.

A poster promoting the sale of Liberty Bonds during World War I

The monument became not only a sign of the United States as home but increasingly acquired martial implications as well. The Statue of Liberty was often associated with the military.

This early 1940s poster urged Americans to support soldiers overseas in order to protect and preserve “Liberty for all.”

Perhaps the most dramatic use of the Statue of Liberty to evoke a protective and patriotic response was the 1918 Liberty Loan poster designed by Joseph Pennell, which displayed the Statue of Liberty destroyed in the harbor.

This poster, circa 1917, promoted the sale of Liberty Bonds

Not all of the World War I wartime uses of the Statue were militaristic. Some posters encouraged war efforts on the home front.

This poster, circa 1917, promoted the sale of Liberty Bonds
This poster asked immigrants not to waste wheat during the war

The Statue of Liberty remained a very powerful symbol, embodying a wide range of meanings and adapted every day to represent new ideas. After 9/11, people in New York once again called upon the Statue to express their grief, horror, and rage.

The Immigrant’s Statue

An illustration of immigrants on the steerage deck of an ocean steamer passing the Statue of Liberty from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 2, 1887

Between 1886 and 1924, almost 14 million immigrants entered the United States through New York. The Statue of Liberty was a reassuring sign that they had arrived in the land of their dreams. To these anxious newcomers, the Statue’s uplifted torch did not suggest “enlightenment,” as her creators intended, but rather, “welcome.” Over time, Liberty emerged as the “Mother of Exiles,” a symbol of hope to generations of immigrants.

A portrait of Emma Lazarus

The opening of the immigrant processing station at Ellis Island in 1892 in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty facilitated an immigrant association, as did the later popularity of Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus.” In 1883, Lazarus donated her poem, “The New Colossus,” to an auction raising funds for the construction of the Statue’s pedestal. This poem vividly depicted the Statue of Liberty as offering refuge to new immigrants from the miseries of Europe. The poem received little attention at the time, but in 1903 was engraved on a bronze plaque and affixed to the base of the Statue.

A newly arrived immigrant family on Ellis Island, gazing across the bay at the Statue of Liberty

War tensions in the twentieth century reinforced this connection and further advanced the image of the Statue in the harbor as an emblem of the United States as a refuge for the poor and persecuted of Europe, and as a place of unlimited opportunity. Sometimes this image glossed over the very real drawbacks and difficulties of settling in the United States, but it was a romantic view that was dominant for decades and continues to persist. In addition to masking immigrant setbacks in the United States, it was a story that tended to favor the European side of immigration at the expense of trials encountered by newcomers from Latin America and Asia.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 speech in honor of the Statue’s 50th anniversary

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 speech in honor of the Statue’s 50th Anniversary helped solidify the transformation of the Statue into an icon of immigration. In the speech he presented immigration as a central part of the nation’s past and emphasized the newcomers’ capacity for Americanization.

A political cartoon entitled “The Proposed Emigrant Dumping Site” from Judge Magazine, March 22, 1890

Connections drawn between the Statue of Liberty and immigration were not always positive. Nativists (Americans who opposed immigration) linked the Statue to immigration most starkly in political cartoons critiquing foreigners’ threats to American liberties and values. They portrayed the monument as a symbol of a nation besieged by pollution, housing shortages, disease, and the onslaught of anarchists, communists, and other alleged subversives. Such images appeared mainly in middle-class popular magazines. They appeared in response to proposed increases in New York’s immigrant processing capacity or in connection to specific political campaigns. When a new immigrant processing station was proposed on Bedloe’s Island in 1890, a cartoon in Judge depicted the Statue as “the future emigrant lodging house.” Expressing fears about the Statue’s literal desecration by newcomers, as well as fears about immigrants’ threat to the liberty it represented, the cartoon showed the monument encumbered by a tenement-style fire escape and clothesline. That same year, Judge published a scathing image of a sneering Statue raising her robe to protect it from the newcomers “European Garbage ships” dumped at her feet.

Popular and Commercial Culture

Although the Statue represents many political and social ideals, it has also been subject to the whims of advertisers, creative artists, and even tourist promoters. The Statue has been placed on everything from posters to trinkets. It is often seen not only as a symbol of the United States, but as one of New York City.

In Advertising

A trade card for Nichols’ Bark and Iron Tonic, circa 1880s

The image of the Statue of Liberty has been used for every conceivable commercial purpose. Bartholdi himself began it all by licensing her image in 1875 and urging French advertisers to use it. The Statue began appearing on the products and trade cards of American companies by 1877, nine years before it was unveiled. Since then, manufacturers around the world have not hesitated to use the Statue to sell everything from cigars to soap.

A political cartoon from Puck Magazine, circa 1880s, entitled “Let the Advertising Agents Take Charge of the Bartholdi Business and the Money Will Be Raised Without Delay.”

The use of the Statue to sell products has been a source of discomfort and dissonance when Americans perceive the Statue of Liberty as being used inappropriately by advertisers. When advertising using the Statue contradicts the ideals of the Statue, or insults an important meaning of the Statue, the ad can come under fire from people trying to prevent the Statue’s meaning from being diminished or diluted.

An early example of this critique of product ads obscuring the noble ideals of the Statue of Liberty is an editorial cartoon that appeared in Puck magazine during the funding campaign for the pedestal in the 1880s. The cartoon lampooned the way that advertising exploited any opportunity and symbol to sell its wares. It shows the Statue covered in advertisements for her top – wearing a “Silker the Hatter” top hat and holding a “Gamp & Co. Umbrella” – to her bare feet, which were flanked by competing ads for corn cures.

As Souvenir

A souvenir plate, circa 1930s

The Statue has inspired souvenirs, pictures, postcards, and keepsakes of every imaginable variety. The souvenirs are as old as the Statue of Liberty itself. Images of the Statue were available at the dedication, much to the chagrin of Auguste Bartholdi, who had planned to collect royalties from the exclusive right to sell the Statue’s image. So long as the Statue remains a powerful symbol and visitors continue making pilgrimages to this beloved monument, statuettes, replicas, and mementos will continue to be made in endless profusion. Souvenirs are mass-produced and their artists are generally anonymous. They can take on a multitude of forms.

A souvenir knife, circa 1900
A Mohawk one-dial radio with a Statue of Liberty speaker frame, circa 1920s
A souvenir spoon with a likeness of the Statue of Liberty
A souvenir lamp. The lampshade depicts the Statue of Liberty alongside buildings, boats, and trees
Souvenir model of the Statue of Liberty

In Popular Culture

A quilt manufactured by the Skiadas Brothers, circa 1985

From the beginning, the Statue of Liberty has stirred the emotions of ordinary people, and has inspired folk artists and commercial manufacturers alike to depict and honor her. Through the years, the Statue’s admirers have sewn, hammered, cut, molded, fired, printed, and painted her image on an extraordinary array of materials.

A whirligig made of copper by James Leonard in 1986. The work depicts the artist’s grandfather who jumped ship and swam ashore to reach the United States
Menorah with nine candle holding statuettes of the Statue of Liberty, circa 1986

Originally published by the National Park Service to the public domain.