The Political and Architectural Significance of the Statue of Liberty

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Scott McCulloch

The Statue of Liberty is a neoclassical monument that stands on Liberty Island in New York Harbour. It was given as a gift from France in 1886 and has become a world famous icon. The statue is of great political significance, symbolising the ideals of the age it was constructed and reflecting the principles of the American Declaration of Independence, a constitution that modern America still has as its political compass. It is also architecturally significant because its design successfully embodied the liberal tenets of the age and has managed to retain its iconic status in the modern world. The gift of the Statue of Liberty was the culmination of over 100 years of favourable relations and shared political ideals between the USA and France, and this relationship began before the nation of America was created. As a reaction to authoritarian British rule, 13 colonies in North America fought a revolutionary war and claimed independence in 1776. This victory was made possible by a treaty they signed with France. French troops and finance helped defeat the British and the United States of America was born (Cowie 1993). This new country created a constitution based on ideals of liberty and equality and less than fifteen years later, France was to have its own revolution, based on the same ideals (Cowie 1993). Within 100 years however, France was yet again under absolute rule, and yet again French republicans were looking to America for inspiration. Eduoard de Laboulaye, a famous French teacher and author, looked to America with great admiration. America had just come out of a civil war which had ended slavery. It seemed to Laboulaye that America would go to great lengths, even war with itself, to uphold the ideals of liberty for all (Roberts 2002).

Laboulaye was keen to rekindle the close relationship both countries had enjoyed in previous years. At a dinner party he hosted in 1865 he put forward the idea of building a tribute to celebrate 100 years of independence in America. He stated: If a monument should rise in the United States, as a memorial to their independence, I think it only natural if it were built by united effort – a common work of both our nations (Roberts 2002, p. 14)

It would be another five years before France could exile Napoleon III and create another republic. When this happened plans went ahead with the construction of Liberty Enlightening the World, the name of the proposed monument. It was to represent the political ideologies of liberty and equality. In the early 1900s it was seen as a ‘beacon of hope for thousands of European immigrants, who arrived in New York Harbour’ (Aldous et al. 2003), and to many around the world today, it still does. The political significance of Lady Liberty was still apparent during the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, where the young Chinese erected a ‘goddess of democracy’ to show their admiration for the American ideals of liberty (Cowie 1993). The purpose of the Statue of Liberty since its conception has been to promote the political ideologies of liberalism and democracy, and it continues to do so to this day. The French tribute to America and its political ideals had to symbolise the shared beliefs of both countries so the architecture of the statue was of great importance. Present at Laboulayes party was French sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who was offered the job of designing the tribute. In 1871 he went to America and spent a year travelling the country. He arrived in New York and was immediately fascinated by the location of a small island at the entrance to the harbour. Bartholdi felt this would be an ideal position for his sculpture as it would be one of the first sights travellers and immigrants would see when they arrived (Roberts 2002). Clearly, a statue of great stature, whose symbolism could be easily read, needed to be the two main objectives of Bartholdi’s design. Bartholdi was a great supporter of...
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