- Enlightening the World—The Creation of the Statue of Liberty
For more than a century the Statue of Liberty has presided over New York Harbor as a potent symbol of the American people's commitment to liberty, justice and opportunity. Yet though today the statue has become an emblem of national identity and a uniquely American icon, the project was, at its origin, the vision of a small group of moderate French republicans who sought to bolster their program of liberal reform through the creation of a monument on the other side of the Atlantic. This "modern colossus" would celebrate the founding ideals and achievements of the American republic, a model democracy in the eyes of the French sponsors and creators of the statue, while at the same time commemorating the unique bond of friendship between the two nations.
Yasmin Sabina Khan's book, which takes its title from the original name for the statue, La Liberté Éclairant le Monde, provides a fresh perspective on the twenty-one year struggle to bring the idea for such a monument to fruition. Following a loosely chronological order, Khan charts the monument's journey from conception in 1865 to unveiling in 1886 by exploring the lives and political ideals of those who designed and built the statue. Woven into these personal stories is a broader account of the political situation both in France and the United States during the period in question. [End Page 341]
The early chapters on Édouard-René Lefebvre de Laboulaye, the French scholar credited with first proposing the idea for a monument to liberty, draw on a wide range of sources-from speech excerpts and campaign posters to private correspondence and citations from Wordsworth and Hugo. These chapters convey Laboulaye's enthusiasm and admiration for the American republic and portray him as an ideological successor to Tocqueville, while expressing Laboulaye's frustrations with the political situation in his own country where his lectures on American history faced government censorship. Later chapters focus on the sculptor Auguste Bartholdi, his training and early career in public statuary, his tour of America at the behest of Laboulaye, and possible sources of his design, many previously unexamined. (For example, Khan sees the broken chain under Liberty's foot, usually interpreted as a sign of America's independence from British authority, as a symbol for the abolition of slavery.)
Khan's central argument is that the Statue of Liberty, though invested with a symbolic function grounded in contemporary politics, spoke for "aspirations that neither geographical boundaries nor political jurisdictions could constrain." In this her thesis differs from earlier academic studies of the statue, in particular Marvin Trachtenberg's 1975 book which describes the statue as "a French political ploy" and "propaganda" in the service of the opposition-terms Khan is careful to avoid. For her, the impetus behind the design of the monument and one of the reasons for its enduring power resides in a universal dream of liberty for all humankind. In her opinion, the creators of the statue sought a "timeless universal language" to celebrate a shared vision of civil liberty "devoid of nationalistic hubris."
In keeping with this central thesis, Khan argues that key aspects of the design—the figure's impassive gaze and her "torch of enlightenment"—reflect this broader ideal of liberty and distinguish the statue from its more militant precursors. She situates the statue within a long tradition in which female figures routinely symbolized political liberty—Delacroix's Liberté guidant le peuple of 1830 is cited as a forerunner—but is careful to distance the Statue of Liberty from earlier representations linking liberty to brutal political upheaval. Laboulaye and other supporters of the project, she argues, made a point of disassociating their figure from these incendiary precursors: "This is not Liberty with a red bonnet on her head and a pike in her hand who runs over fallen bodies," Laboulaye emphasized in a speech given at the Paris Opera in 1876.
Khan is a civil engineer...