Immigration Irony



The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World – Edward Moran 1886

As the Republican leadership blows the hot flames of xenophobia on the subjects of immigration – and most recently – of Syrian refugees, it is both fascinating and fun to learn things about American history and then present it in order to show the abject hypocrisy of the Right.

The United States has debated immigration since the country’s founding, and the iconic Statue of Liberty – a potent symbol for immigrants – is often invoked as an argument for why we should usher in those who seek safety and opportunity with open arms. A little-known fact about “Lady Liberty,” as the statue is often called, adds an intriguing twist to today’s debate about refugees from the Muslim world. The statue itself was originally intended to represent – get this – a female Egyptian (Muslim) peasant as a Colossus of Rhodes for the Industrial Age! How ironic.

That fact might be surprising to people more familiar with the statue’s French roots than its Muslim ones. After all, the statue’s structure was designed by a Frenchman, Alexandre-Gustav Eiffel, and “Lady Liberty” was a gift from French citizens to their American friends in recognition of the two countries’ commitment to liberty and democracy and their alliance during the American Revolutionary War, which had begun 110 years earlier.

The statue’s designer, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, was also French, but he found inspiration not in France but in a very different place – Egypt. In 1855, Bartholdi visited the Nubian monuments at Abu Simbel in southern Egypt that feature tombs guarded by gigantic colossus figures. Bartholdi became fascinated by the ancient architecture and developed what can only be described as a passion for large-scale public monuments and colossal structures. Eventually, he channeled that passion into a proposal for the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869.

In 1867, Bartholdi went to see the viceroy of Egypt, Ishma’il Pasha, the reigning khedive, who was visiting Paris during the Universal Exposition (Exposition universelle [d’art et d’industrie] de 1867), and proposed a colossal statue be erected at the entrance of the Suez Canal, then nearing completion.


The initial concept of Bartholdi for the Suez Canal

Bartholdi envisioned a colossal eighty-six foot tall monument featuring a robe-clad woman representing Egypt to stand on a forty-eight foot tall pedestal at Port Said, the city at the northern terminus of the Suez Canal in Egypt. To prep for this undertaking, Bartholdi studied art like the Colossus, honing the concept for a figure called Libertas who would stand at the canal. He envisioned this statue in the form of an Egyptian female fellah (peasant), holding aloft a torch. The statue was to symbolize Ishma’il Pasha’s efforts to modernize Egypt and would be called “Egypt (or Progress) Carrying the Light to Asia.”

The statue was also to serve as a lighthouse – recalling the Lighthouse of Alexandria, another of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and in appearance drew heavily on yet another ancient “wonder” – the Colossus of Rhodes, which in tradition appears carrying a flame, thought to serve as a beacon.

Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal cautioned Bartholdi that there were not sufficient finances to fund his project. He was proven right and Bartholdi’s statue was rejected, simply due to the lack of money.

Bartholdi returned to France. Unable to sell the idea to the viceroy of Egypt, Bartholdi remained determined to erect a colossus on the scale of the one in ancient Rhodes. In 1865, Bartholdi had been a dinner guest of Édouard René Lefebvre de Laboulaye, who hosted the affair. Over dinner they discussed their admiration of how the Americans had resisted oppression and succeeded in winning their freedom. It was the same type of democracy they were seeking for their own country. Laboulaye commented in light of the American centennial just eleven years hence: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people in France gave the United States a great monument as a lasting memorial to independence and thereby showed that the French government was also dedicated to the idea of human liberty?” It is not by no means clear that Bartholdi even liked Americans. But it did not matter; it is likely the statue was of more importance to him than the country the statue graced. Of Americans, he is quoted as saying: “What is lacking in the cities and most of the men is charm and taste.” The original idea was intended as a gift from France to the United States in celebration of its first one hundred years as a nation. France too, was fighting for its own liberation. The United States was most recently finished with its Civil War among the states and slavery was abolished.

So it was that Bartholdi sailed to America to drum up support for his idea with drawings of the Muslim woman now transformed to the personification of Liberty As he entered New York Harbor, Bartholdi noticed a small, twelve acre piece of land near Ellis Island, called Bedloe’s Island. He decided it was the perfect spot for his statue. Bartholdi spent the next five months traveling around the United States getting support for the statue. Then he went back to France, where the government of Emperor Napoléon III (Napoléon Bonaparte’s nephew) was openly hostile to the democratic and republican ideals celebrated by the Statue of Liberty. They would have jailed him if he had spoken of the project openly – so Bartholdi kept a low profile until 1874, when the Third Republic was proclaimed after Napoléon III’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Bartholdi went back to work. He founded a group called the Franco-American Union, comprised of French and American supporters, to help raise money for the statue.

Bartholdi’s insistence that the ideas for the statues for Egypt and the United States were just coincidental seems highly unlikely. According to Bartholdi’s own published account, written in 1885, the seeds for Liberty were, in fact, sown by Laboulaye as early as 1865. But the first hints of the project in Bartholdi’s private papers appear in December 1869, which was just a few months after his trip to Egypt had failed to receive funding. Then he went to America in 1870. It would therefore appear that upon returning from Egypt in the fall of 1869, Bartholdi sought to convert failure into success by re-directing his Egyptian project toward the 1865 United States idea of Laboulaye.


Illustration from U.S. Patent D11023, filed 2 January 1870 by Batholdi

The convergence of “Suez Progress” and the “New York Liberty” can be seen in what appears to be the earliest model for Liberty, dated 1870. Its torch-lifting pose closely resembles the Egyptian project, but it is identifiable as Liberty by its classic costume and by the broken fetters at its feet.

Since as early as 1738, the United States began to use in poetic symbolism, the deity of Columbia, a name supposedly meaning “land of (or discovered by), Columbus.” Columbia was seen as a quasi-mythical figure. By the 19th century, Columbia would be visualized as a goddess-like female and the national personification of the United States. The image of the personified Columbia was never fixed, but she was most often presented as a woman between youth and middle age, dressed in flag-like bunting. Other nations used similar figures, notably the French Marianne and the British Britannia. Often she was decorated with the stars and stripes. Her headdress though varied, is most often seen as a laurel wreath or a cap of liberty. Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean was written in 1843 and served as an unofficial national anthem in competition with Hail, Columbia and The Star-Spangled Banner until the latter’s formal adoption as the national anthem of the United States in 1931.The twin ideas of Progress (Egypt), and Columbia (United States), are clearly combined into the Statue of Liberty.

Bartholdi used the same torch idea in the Egyptian version as he did the American statue, though instead of providing navigation assistance for boats going through the Suez Canal, the torch would light the way for immigrants coming to the United States.

Bartholdi worked with structural designer Alexandre-Gustav Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel, designer of the Eiffel Tower in Paris) in designing the new American statue, with the year 1876 in mind for completion to commemorate the centennial of the American Declaration of Independence. Eiffel’s massive iron pylon and secondary skeletal framework allowed the statue’s copper skin to move independently yet stand upright.

The Statue of Liberty was a joint effort between the United States and France and it was agreed upon that the American people were to build the pedestal and the French people were responsible for the statue and its assembly here in the United States. However, lack of funds was a problem on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In France, public fees, various forms of entertainment, and a lottery were among the methods used to raise funds. In the United States, benefit theatrical events, art exhibitions, auctions and prize fights assisted in providing needed funds.

In the United States, fund raising for the pedestal was going particularly slowly, so Joseph Pulitzer (noted for the Pulitzer Prize) opened up the editorial pages of his newspaper, New York World to support the fund raising effort. Pulitzer used his newspaper to criticize both the rich who had failed to finance the pedestal construction and the middle class who were content to rely upon the wealthy to provide the funds. Pulitzer’s campaign of harsh criticism was successful in motivating the people of the United States to donate.

Financing for the pedestal was completed in August 1885, and pedestal construction was finished in April 1886. The statue was completed in France in July 1884 and arrived in New York Harbor in June 1885 on board the French frigate Isère that transported the Statue of Liberty from France to the United States. In transit, the statue was reduced to 350 individual pieces and packed in 214 crates. The statue was re-assembled on her new pedestal in four month’s time. On 28 October 1886, President Grover Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, renamed Liberty Enlightening the World.

And thus the statue that began as a young Muslim fellah (peasant) woman who would guide travelers through the Suez Canal was a centennial gift to the United States – more than ten years after the original 4 July 1876 deadline. Well, better late than never.


An ocean steamer passing the Statue of Liberty. Scene on the steerage deck. Published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1887







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