No, Miss Liberty of Statue-of-Liberty fame wasn’t always imagined as the scowling, linebacker-throated Midwestern matron of steely spiky Germanic stock that she is today. She was supposed to look like an Arab peasant, robed in the folds of Muslim precepts. She wasn’t even supposed to be eternally standing at the entrance of New York Harbor, warning new arrivals to the New World about New Jersey to her right.
That’s all schoolbook revisionism designed not to traumatize young American pupils with the reality behind Liberty: that she was supposed to be the welcome ma’am at the entrance of the Suez Canal in Egypt, that her name was supposed to be either Egypt or Progress, and that the flame she was brandishing was to symbolize the light she was bringing to Asia, which had claims to newness all its own.
Lighting the Way to Asia
All this from the imaginative scruffles of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the Alsatian-French sculptor who’d fallen in love with his own Orientalist fantasies about the Middle East after a trip to Egypt’s Luxor spreads in 1855.
He liked Egypt’s colossal sculptures, those “granite beings of imperturpable majesty” with their eyes seemingly “fixed on the limitless future.” He liked just as much the then-fashionable notions of Europeans thinking themselves the “Orient”‘s best thing since unsliced baklava. Bartholdi returned to Egypt in 1869 with the blueprints for a toga-draped giant of a woman who’d double-up as a lighthouse at the entrance of theSuez Canal, which opened that year to fanfare and (British and French) stockholders’ delight.
The Suez Canal may have been in Egypt. But Egypt wasn’t reaping its monetary benefits. The American Civil War had done wonders for Egyptian wealth thanks to the blockade of Southern cotton, which turned Egyptian cotton into gold. But the price of cotton crashed after the Civil War and so did Egypt’s economy. Suez revenue could have picked up the slack. Instead, it went into the pockets of European investors (until Egypt’s Gama Abdel Nasser nationalized the waterway in 1956, to the disingenuous fury of France and Britain).
From Lady Egypt to Lady Liberty
As Bartholdi was sketching one likeness of his great statue after another, it became apparent that his plan would never get Egypt’s financing.
Bartholdi was crushed. He sailed to New York. And there, as his ship was entering New York Harbor, he saw Bedloe’s Island, deserted, oval-shaped, perfectly positioned to bear his creation. She wouldn’t be Egypt. But she’d still be Barthold’s. He worked out an arrangement with Gustav Eiffel to build the statue in 350 pieces in Paris, for the French government to pay for the statue (that was back when French and Americans had more respect than reproach for each other), and with American donors to pay for the 89-foot pedestal. Bartholdi’s goal was to have the dedication coincide with the centennial of the American Revolution, somewhere around July 4, 1876.
It happened a bit later, on Oct. 28, 1886, with a military, naval and civic parade in Manhattan, ending at the Battery at the tip of the island, with Gen. Charles P. Stone, who as the statue’s American engineer, was essentially its midwife, was the parade’s grand marshal. She was no longer an Egyptian woman. She was “Liberty Enlightening the World.”
New York Inaugurates Liberty
The weather did not cooperate. The rain was so bad that a New York Times editorioal called it “almost a national misfortune” that “robbed the pageant of much of its effect.” Not that U.S. President Grover Cleveland was going to miss a chance to make himself slightly immortal by association with Lady Liberty as he accepted “this grand and imposing work of art,” though in words of granite neither grand nor imposing: “This token of the affection and consideration of the people of France assures us that in our efforts to commend to mankind a government resting upon popular will, we still have beyond the American continent a steadfast ally, while it also demonstrates the kinship of the republic.” At that point the historical record notes that there were loud cheers, not least those wondering who wrote that stuff.
But Cleveland got a bit more colorful in his next salvo: “We are not here today to bow before the representative of a fierce and warlike god, filled with wrath and vengeance, but instead, we contemplate our own peaceful deity keeping watch before the open gates of America.” Well, the battleship Tennessee’s warlike batteries, which had just boomed, notwithstanding. “Instead of grasping in her hands the thunderbolts of terror and of death, she holds aloft the light that illumines the way to man’s enfranchisement.” More cheers. Liberty’s light, he concluded, “shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and men’s oppression until liberty shall enlighten the world.”
Of Egypt’s inspiration in all this, not a word. The majority of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Middle East, Egyptians among them, would never know the statue’s genesis, only their own. And their own, to this day (even though they’ve long ago stopped sailing into New York Harbor as immigrants), remains one mired in the authoritarian, unfree grasp of regimes from the Hindu Kush to West and North Africa that have yet to see the light Cleveland spoke of, and Bartholdi imagined.
One last irony: Bedloe’s Island was not officially renamed until many years later, when it became Liberty Island. The year? 1956. Gamal Abdel Nasser must have smiled.