By MJ Ali
The Statue of Liberty was a friendship gift from France, named “Liberty Enlightening the World,” and has been recognized as a universal symbol of freedom and democracy. France gave the US the Statue of Liberty in 1886. Americans gave Paris a smaller version of the same statue in 1889, installed on the Île aux Cygnes, River Seine in Paris.
But what was the original intent of France’s generous gift to the United States, and at that particular time? The poem written by Emma Lazarus, affixed to the Statue’s base, entitled “The New Colossus,” is the popular thinking of the original intent. But it was actually intended as a recognition of the abolition of slavery just the year before, of freedom from oppression. The Statue is shown lifting her right foot forward and away from chains that lay broken at her feet. It wasn’t until later that the Statue came to represent what Lazarus’ poem embodies.
Do you remember seeing those broken shackles at the feet of the Statue? They’re there, just not visible to visitors unless they’re viewing from a helicopter or have their own jet pack.
In a summary report published by the National Park Service, it states, in part, that “The Statue of Liberty would never have been conceived or built if its principal French and American advocates had not been active abolitionists who understood slavery as the cause of the Civil War and its end as the realization of the promise of liberty for all as codified in the Declaration of Independence.”
If you’re wondering why you didn’t know about any of this, it’s because it wasn’t taught in schools. It’s not popular knowledge. But if we’re to move forward as a larger family of humans, it–and so much more–needs to be.
Just as the Statue of Liberty means different things here, its symbolism is specific to other parts of the world. There are too many replicas of the Statue of Liberty around the world to show, but here are a few:
Photo: Sjoehest / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Chintunglee / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Although we don’t have a photo to use for this one, it is very notable. Located in the western section of Rio de Janeiro, this Statue of Liberty’s design claim to fame is that it was made by the designer of the original Statue of Liberty, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.
The statue commemorates the 1889 coup that led to Brazilian independence.
Everything has a history, and finding out it might be different than we knew it doesn’t mean that history is erased, but that it actually becomes richer. It becomes something we can learn from, as a collective body. And once we do that, we can move forward. The fact that this statue means different things to different people not just here in the US, but for cultures all over the world, is a testament to the power and flexibility of symbolism. Honoring its original intentions only adds to that.