The United States has debated immigration since the country's founding, and the Statue of Liberty—a potent symbol for immigrants—is often invoked as an argument for why we should usher in those who seek safety and opportunity with open arms.
A little-known fact about Lady Liberty adds an intriguing twist to today's debate about refugees from the Muslim world: according to the Smithsonian Institute the statue itself was originally intended to represent a female Egyptian peasant as a Colossus of Rhodes for the Industrial Age. That might be surprising to people more familiar with the statue’s French roots than its Arab ones. After all, the statue’s structure was designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel), and Lady Liberty was given to the United States by France for its centennial to celebrate the alliance of the two countries formed during the French Revolution. The statue’s designer, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, was also French, but he found inspiration in a very different place: Egypt.
In 1855, Bartholdi visited Nubian monuments at Abu Simbel, which feature tombs guarded by gigantic colossus figures. Bartholdi became fascinated by the ancient architecture, developing what the National Park Service calls a “passion for large-scale public monuments and colossal structures.” Eventually, he channeled that passion into a proposal for the inauguration of the Suez Canal. Bartholdi envisioned a colossal monument featuring a robe-clad woman representing Egypt to stand at Port Said, the city at the northern terminus of the canal in Egypt.
The Colossus of Rhodes, as Depicted in an Artist's Impression of 1880
To prep for this undertaking, Barry Moreno, author of multiple books about the statue, writes that Bartholdi studied art like the Colossus, honing the concept for a figure called Libertas who would stand at the canal. “Taking the form of a veiled peasant woman,” writes Moreno, “the statue was to stand 86 feet high, and its pedestal was to rise to a height of 48 feet.” Early models of the statue were called “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia.”
Edward Berenson, author of Statue of Liberty: A Translatlantic Story, writes that Bartholdi’s concept morphed from “a gigantic female fellah, or Arab peasant” into “a colossal goddess.” But Egypt, which had invested enormous amounts of time and money into the landmark canal, was not as eager about Bartholdi’s idea. Isma’il Pasha, the reigning khedive, rejected the plan as too costly.
Lighthouse at Port Said, Egypt
Eventually, a 180-foot tall lighthouse was installed at Port Said instead. But Bartholdi was not discouraged. He eventually repurposed his concept into “Liberty Enlightening the World”—the official name for the statue that has been overlooking New York Harbor since 1886.
Auguste Bartholdi was born on August 2, 1834 in Colmar, Alsace, France, Early in his career, Bartholdi extensively studied art, sculpture, and architecture. From 1855 to 1856, Bartholdi embarked on a life-changing trip throughout Europe and the Middle East with some fellow artists. In 1869, the Egyptian government expressed interest in designing a lighthouse for the Suez Canal. Eager and excited, Bartholdi designed a colossal statue of a robed woman holding a torch, which he called Egypt (or Progress) Brings Light to Asia. When he attended the canal's inauguration, however, Bartholdi was informed that he would not be able to proceed with the lighthouse. Although disappointed, Bartholdi received a second chance to design a colossal statue. In 1865, Edouard de Laboulaye proposed that a monument representing freedom and democracy be created for the United States. Bartholdi was a great supporter of Laboulaye's idea and in 1870 he began designing the Statue of "Liberty Enlightening the World."
In the first few years after the Statue's conception, Bartholdi made a number of trips to the U.S. The moment he first entered New York harbor by ship, he spotted the location where he knew the Statue must stand - Bedloe's Island. Bartholdi saw New York as the gateway to America and it was at Bedloe's Island that Bartholdi envisioned the Statue rising out of the star-shaped Fort Wood.
Bartholdi also used his trips to stir up support for the Statue - both ideologically and financially. When he returned to Paris in 1872, Bartholdi used his American contacts to assist Edouard de Laboulaye in creating the Franco-American Union in Paris which raised 400,000 francs to fund the construction of the Statue.
Bartholdi visited the United States once more in 1876 to display the Statue's massive arm and torch at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Afterwards the pieces were displayed in Madison Square Park, New York City until 1882 to assist in fundraising. Additionally, Bartholdi assisted with setting up the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty for fundraising in the United States for the pedestal.
The Statue was fully constructed in Paris and presented by the Franco American Union to the United States Ambassador in 1884. In 1886, Bartholdi oversaw the Statue's assembly in New York and participated in its inauguration.
At the ceremony, Bartholdi was presented with the key to the city and later climbed the Statue to release the tricolor French flag that veiled Liberty's face. Bartholdi died of tuberculosis in 1904.