Today is the 130th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, a national monument that most Americans simply associate as a gift of the French people to honor the working of the two nations together during the American Revolution. But that’s more myth than fact. The father of the monument is not a household word in France or the United States. Edouard de Laboulaye (1811-1883) was a French political scientist and expert on the U. S. Constitution who campaigned for the gift to move his monarchy-burdened nation — and others with a similar status — to mimic the United States
His hero was Abraham Lincoln, and beginning in 1865 as the Civil War came to an end, de Laboulaye began his quest for the private funds that materialized into the formal name, design and making of the “Liberty Enlightening the World.” The donations of the French people — from schoolchildren to notables — covered the cost of the statue, and private contributions from Americans paid for the pedestal. Unfortunately, de Laboulaye did not live to see the ceremonies on Oct. 28, 1886, but it was a glorious moment for the two nations,
Although the weather was scarcely cooperative on what was then called Bedloe’s Island where the gift was secured, thousands poured into the city for the ceremonies on land and sea. Some 100 bands of nearly 12,000 people suggested to one observer that “it seemed to have rained brass bands during the night and hailed gorgeousness, with no drainage to carry the surplus away.” There were bands of 70 people and some of seven. Washington, D. C. bands could be heard a mile away, observers recorded, some from Philadelphia couldn’t be heard at all.
No matter. Not since the funeral of President Ulysses S. Grant the year before had so many crowded along the parade route. And the waters surrounding Bedloe’s Island were filled with vessels. According to one reporter, “such a tooting and bellowing and churning as whipped the waters around the island into yeast, as they took their places, has never in the wildest pilot’s dream been seen before, and a hundred collisions impended at once and were averted …”
The grand moment, of course, was the statue’s unveiling, rendered difficult by the rainy weather that made the veil heavy and cumbersome. But after a half-hour delay, the deed was done. And correspondents waxed eloquent on what happened next: “Thunder after thunder shook cloud and sea, the brazen voice of steam lifted its utmost clamors, colors dipped, men cheered and women applauded, the sounds from the sea were hurled back from the land, bell spoke to bell and cannon to cannon, till all men by the thousands gathered in her honor knew that Liberty had been given and received.”
The speeches from French and American dignitaries rivaled the superlatives of the correspondents. “In landing beneath its rays,” said Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, head of the Franco-American Union, “the people will know that they have reached a land where individual initiative is developed in all its powers; where progress is a religion; where great fortunes become popular by the charity they bestow and by encouraging instruction and science and casting their influence into the future.”
Speaking in a loud voice, President Grover Cleveland summarized the essence of the statue: “We will not forget that Liberty has here made her home … Willing votaries shall keep its fires alive, and they shall gleam upon the shores of our sister republic in the East, reflect thence, and, joined with answering rays, a stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and men’s oppressions until liberty shall enlighten the world.”
• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.