The National Park Service is planning a number of special events for this Friday, the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty’s unveiling at Liberty Island. There will be music and speeches during the day, and fireworks around the island in the evening. I’ll be at the gift pavilion on Liberty Island Friday morning—with signed copies of my book!

I am delighted that my article “Creating Lady Liberty: Bartholdi’s Exploratory Visit to America” will be included in the next issue of the Early America Review.

The article is also here on my web site. “Creating Lady Liberty: Bartholdi’s Exploratory Visit to America”

July 4, 2011


Happy Independence Day!

Lafayette Day

May 20, 2011

Today is “Massachusetts Lafayette Day.” This day of tribute was established in 1935 on the anniversary of Lafayette’s death, May 20, 1834.

Learning about Laboulaye and Bartholdi also helped me make sense of the individual features of the statue. Bartholdi included traditional symbols of liberty in his design, without explanation. Most people agree that, while using traditional symbols, he intended to evoke America’s particular experiences and achievements. In most cases, however, there’s room for interpretation; the trampled chain is one such case, its full meaning disputed ever since the statue’s unveiling. The chain may, as has often been asserted, refer solely to the Revolutionary period in American history, symbolizing America’s liberty from the oppression of British authority, which is also represented by the date of independence written on the tablet. But I came to a different conclusion.

Bartholdi designed the statue in the decade following the American Civil War. People in France had followed the war’s progress and many people, among them Laboulaye, had supported Abraham Lincoln and strongly advocated the abolition of slavery. Six years after the war’s end, Bartholdi visited the U.S. He saw how the war’s memory and effects were clearly present in people’s lives, and he met with abolitionists such as Charles Sumner. For these reasons and more, I am convinced that the trampled chain symbolizes not only America’s independence from Britain, but also, and even primarily, the abolition of slavery in the U.S.

Chauncey Depew, the invited orator at the statue’s unveiling, associated slavery with the broken chain at Liberty’s feet during the unveiling ceremony in 1886. “The development of Liberty was impossible,” he declared, “while she was shackled to the slave.” I believe that the statue’s main sponsors and creators all shared this sentiment.

And yet the statue was readily stripped of this important meaning. For so many years.

My interest in Laboulaye

April 25, 2011

In writing Enlightening the World, I felt that it was important to learn as much as possible about the people who shaped the statue. And as I learned about Édouard Laboulaye, I came to really like him. He was a legal scholar who sincerely longed for justice and the protection of human rights and human dignity. Susan B. Anthony referred to him as a friend of the women’s movement, he was president of the French Anti-Slavery Society, he concerned himself with the treatment of military prisoners, and he urged his fellow citizens (living under the rule of Napoleon III) to yearn for liberty. His novel Paris in America was impressive, but so too were his short stories for children, lovely tales with lessons such as “not only assist, but respect, the poor.”

Laboulaye’s enduring admiration of America, her founding fathers, and the system of government they initiated was widely known in France. When he proposed that the people of France and the U.S. jointly build a monument to liberty and to American independence, he reminded the French of the role they had played in America’s achievement of independence and of the special friendship between the two peoples that was established during the American Revolutionary War.

However the enormity of the project Laboulaye undertook and the remarkable commitment he made to it have led people to question his motives. Practically denying the goodwill of the French people, some writers have suggested that the statue was essentially a self-serving political device. Because Laboulaye taught that the American form of government offered an example to the French (and other people around the world seeking change from authoritarian rule), the statue has been called a ploy, planned by the liberals in France to bolster their program.

This seems to me a highly skeptical approach. Limited access to information about Laboulaye and the other main figures responsible for the statue may be partly to blame. For instance, Auguste Bartholdi’s journal entries and letters home during his visit to the U.S. in 1871 offer clues to his design and to his own commitment to the statue. But they were referred to only through secondary sources in studies in the 1970s and 1980s. The journal and letters were probably difficult to consult prior to their arrival at the New York Public Library in the mid-1980s, which might explain their omission. In addition, new detailed studies of Laboulaye, Bartholdi, Richard Morris Hunt, and Gustave Eiffel have also been completed in the last twenty years.

My research convinced me that, although Laboulaye may have been slightly misguided, having never visited the U.S. himself, his faith in the strong bonds of a unique kinship between the American and French people was sincere. He recalled the enthusiastic reception Lafayette received during his visit to the U.S. in 1824-1825 and believed that the sense of friendship displayed by Americans he met in Paris was shared by many Americans. He had numerous contacts in the U.S. and he anticipated a favorable response to the idea of a monument to liberty, accomplished through the combined efforts of the French and American people.

Laboulaye’s novel

April 19, 2011

Laboulaye was known in France as a legal scholar and a member of the Institut de France, as well as an authority on the U.S. Constitution and American history. He established the first course of lectures on the U.S. at the Collège de France in Paris in 1849, and in the early 1860s he published a 3-volume history of the United States. Wanting to share his admiration of America’s form of government with a wider audience, Laboulaye decided to write a novel.

His story aimed to depict the benefits of individual political liberty to society. His lesson was a serious one, but Laboulaye clearly had fun with this tale. My favorite part is the opening section, which culminates in the narrator’s heroism his first day in America.

Paris in America starts with a séance in France one evening; the following morning the narrator wakes to find that he, together with his family and neighbors, has been transported to Massachusetts, “Paris, MA,” that is. After discovering the comforts of an American home (such as running water for one’s bath) and meeting his Americanized wife and children, he hears the calls of a fire. Aghast at the idea that he could be a volunteer fireman (“A singular idea,” the narrator exclaims, “to risk one’s own skin for strangers, when firemen might be hired!”), he is dressed and set on a truck to join his fellow fire fighters. To his surprise he dashes up a ladder, saves a child from a burning building, and becomes a hero — celebrated for one day, until other news captures the headlines the following morning. The story abounds with stereotypes and caricature but the humor in which it is written shines through and even Laboulaye’s mocking of social customs, particularly those of the French, are understood to be the criticisms of one who loves his country. It seems that people in both France and the U.S. enjoyed and appreciated this witty political novel. I have had leisure to look into Laboulaye’s “dream,” Lincoln’s secretary of state William Seward said of the book, “and am infinitely pleased with its humor as well as its spirit.”

When Édouard Laboulaye, the Frenchman who shepherded the Statue of Liberty from idea into construction, wrote a novel about liberty in America, he drew on another experience recorded by Levasseur. Shortly after Lafayette’s arrival in New York in August 1824, a fire broke out a few blocks from where he and his companions were staying. Hearing the bells and the sound of fire trucks passing, Levasseur and George Lafayette rushed into the street to join the crowd headed toward the fire. Once there, the two Frenchmen watched the fire fighters in action and spoke with one of the police officers about their progress. Levasseur was duly impressed by the courageous firemen – volunteers, he learned – and by the order that prevailed among the onlookers, “without the aid of a single bayonet or uniform.” The experience led him to a favorable conclusion about a democratic society’s effect on its citizens: people maintain order and respect the law when they, as opposed to an authoritarian ruler, are the authors of their laws.

Édouard Laboulaye took this as a theme for his novel, Paris in America. And he used Levasseur’s story about courageous volunteer firemen as the basis for a lively scene in the opening section of his book.

Levasseur’s journal

April 12, 2011

Lafayette’s secretary Auguste Levasseur recorded Lafayette’s 1824-1825 visit to the U.S. in a detailed journal that was published in France a few years following their return home (this is the journal Alan Hoffman recently translated). Levasseur depicted the remarkable outpouring of affection for Lafayette. But equally intriguing for some of his readers were the American habits and way of life that his stories revealed.

One experience involved the president of the United States in 1825, John Quincy Adams. Having returned to Washington D.C. at the end of his year-long tour of the U.S., Lafayette mentioned to President Adams that he would like to visit James Monroe, Adams’s predecessor, before departing for France. Adams offered to take Lafayette to see Monroe at his home near the capital and arranged for their small group to travel by carriage (Lafayette’s son, George Washington Lafayette, and Auguste Levasseur accompanied Lafayette throughout his trip). Crossing over the Potomac the two carriages stopped at a tollbooth and Adams paid for the group. As they started off, however, the toll collector ran after them, shouting, “Mr. President! Mr. President!” Apparently the president had given him too little. Adams counted the horses and passengers once more, agreed with the toll collector’s tally, and paid the missing 11 cents.

During their discussion the toll collector recognized Lafayette. He now insisted that, although the president was obligated to pay the usual fee, the “Nation’s Guest” (that is, Lafayette) could not be charged for crossing a bridge. After some more discussion, Adams convinced the collector that on this particular outing Lafayette was traveling as a friend of the president and therefore should pay the toll, the same as everyone else.

For Levasseur and his readers, the entire scene must have been at once astonishing and amusing. Who could have imagined chasing after the French king in this way?

Lafayette portrait

April 2, 2011

In my last post about Lafayette’s visit to the U.S. in 1824-1825 (note that this was a full 40 years after the Revolutionary War and his permanent return to France) I mentioned the naming of cities, streets, etc. in his honor. Another lasting tribute to the Marquis de Lafayette and his role in securing our independence, dating from that same visit, is the portrait that hangs in the House Chamber in Washington D.C. It was in December 1824, once word of the spirited welcome Lafayette received in the U.S. reached France, that the artist Ary Scheffer offered a portrait of Lafayette to the U.S. House of Representatives. The House not only accepted Scheffer’s painting but, rather than hang it in a hallway or a meeting room, displayed it on the front wall of the House Chamber, to the side of the Speaker’s rostrum (when the House moved, the painting was relocated to the current Chamber and the same prominent position). Ten years after receiving the painting of Lafayette, the House commissioned a portrait of George Washington for the other side of the speaker’s rostrum.

U.S. House of Representatives Lafayette portrait

The Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives web site shows the two paintings and gives a little information about them.

I can imagine the impression this made on Édouard Laboulaye, and other “friends of America” in France.