Why the Statue of Liberty Almost Never Got Built – History
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The construction of the Statue of Liberty was a joint project between France and the United States. France was supposed to build the copper statue of a woman raising a torch, and the United States was supposed to build its pedestal.
But for a while, it wasn’t clear if the statue would go up in New York City at all. When the Statue of Liberty arrived (in pieces) in New York Harbor on June of 1885, the pedestal was still under construction, and fundraisers were still collecting the money to finish it.
READ MORE: Statue of Liberty: The Making of an Icon
Presentation drawing of 'The Statue of Liberty Illuminating the World', by French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi
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Discussions about France building a statue for the United States started about 20 years before the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York. The French historian Édouard de Laboulaye first proposed the idea around 1865, the year the Civil War ended and the United States began abolishing slavery.
De Laboulaye, an abolitionist and advocate for democracy, believed that funding a statue celebrating the United States’ victory would strengthen support for democracy in France, which was then under the dictatorship of Napoléon Bonaparte’s nephew. The French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi agreed to design the statue, which was called Liberty Enlightening the World.
When Bartholdi campaigned for public support of the statue in the United States, he promoted the statue as a commemoration of the U.S. centennial on July 4, 1876, which marked a century since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. The statue wasn’t anywhere near ready by the time of the centennial, but even when the statue arrived in New York City nearly a decade later, the American Committee of the Statue of Liberty still hadn’t raised the roughly $250,000 to $300,000 necessary to build the pedestal.
Most of the money the committee had raised so far had probably come in the form of donations from wealthy Americans. There wasn’t any federal funding for the pedestal, because the U.S. Congress couldn’t agree on a spending package, says Alan Kraut, a history professor at American University and chair of the history advisory committee for the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.
“There was a lot of disagreement and a lot of bickering over who should put up the money,” he says. Some “were all in favor of statues of [the Marquis de] Lafayette and George Washington,” and didn’t want the Statue of Liberty because they “thought the concept of liberty was a little bit too abstract.”
In addition, New York Governor Grover Cleveland, before becoming president in 1885, had said that New York City couldn’t use its city government funds to pay for the pedestal. Other cities like Boston and Philadelphia expressed interested in funding the pedestal—but this was understandably on the condition that the statue be moved to their city.
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Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant and wealthy newspaper publisher, was in favor of erecting the statue in New York City. On March 16, 1885, he asked readers of his newspaper the New York World to send in donations for the pedestal.
“We must raise the money!” he wrote in his New York paper. “The World is the people's paper, and now it appeals to the people to come forward and raise the money… Let us not wait for the millionaires to give us this money. It is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America.”
Pulitzer printed the names of people who donated in the newspaper, and often included details that the donators had supposedly sent him about why they were donating or how they had come up with the money. (Despite his criticisms of millionaires for not donating enough money to the pedestal, it’s not clear if the wealthy newspaper owner donated any of his own money to the cause.)
The newspaper’s fundraising drive succeeded:succeeded: By August 1885, more than 120,000 people had donated upward of $100,000—enough money to complete the pedestal. On October 28, 1886, President (and former New York Governor) Grover Cleveland, dedicated the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
Afterward, Pulitzer continued to promote his role in raising funds for the statue.
“The people of New York City realized the role that Pulitzer had played, and Pulitzer never hesitated to remind them of that,” Kraut says. “Because after all, he was a man with a newspaper to sell.”
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