The Statue of Liberty Was Herself an Early Immigrant to America

The Statue of Liberty Was Herself an Early Immigrant to America

Head of the Statue of Liberty in the Champ-de-Mars

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Why you should care

Because symbols can change — and this one resonates more than ever. 

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The Statue of Liberty has stood as a beacon of everything that’s good about America since it was officially unveiled to the public in 1886. Indeed, millions of immigrants got their first glimpse of Lady Liberty as they arrived in droves to Ellis Island, the first step on their path to becoming an American citizen; in all, between 1892 and 1954, more than twelve million immigrants passed through the Island. Though many regard the Statue as American as apple pie and the Pledge of Allegiance, the truth is that its association with immigration didn’t enter the popular culture until fifty years after the Statue first arrived.

The French Connection

Edouard de Laboulaye, a French lawyer and author, came up with the idea for the Statue in 1865. “The Statue was originally designed to celebrate French-American relations and liberty under a republican form of government,” says Vincent J. Cannato, author of American Passage: The History of Ellis Island, and Associate Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts/Boston. De Laboulaye also intended the statue to commemorate the end of slavery in America in 1865.

So he commissioned the French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi to create a 305-foot-tall statue with reinforced interior steel beams and copper exterior. It was a revolutionary design for the time, allowing people to climb right up into the crown and torch from the inside of the sculpture,. The deal was that the French would pay for the sculpture and the Americans would foot the bill for the pedestal in New York Harbor.

In 1876 Bartholdi shipped the completed torch to be displayed in Manhattan. But the rest of Lady Liberty almost didn’t make it over because fundraising for the pedestal was at a standstill. The mid-1870s were a financially challenging time for many Americans due to an economic depression that was in its fourth year. The fundraising committee appealed to New York’s wealthy community for help, but there were few takers, with many would-be investors citing their own economic woes.

Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of The New York World, was himself a recent immigrant from Hungary, and he knew what the Statue would represent to others like him. So he launched a campaign of his own, pledging to publish the names of everyone who donated to the fund in his newspaper, even if they only gave a few pennies. It worked: the pedestal was ready in 1885, and the rest of Lady Liberty landed in New York Harbor in 1886. The statue was unveiled in late 1886 just as immigrants began flooding into the country to escape political upheaval and poverty in their native lands.

“As immigrants entered Ellis Island and saw the statue, they began to associate it with freedom and the United States,” says Professor Cannato.

Famous First Words

Most Americans instantly recognize this phrase:

Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

These words are from “The New Colossus,” which poet Emma Lazarus wrote in 1883 for an auction to raise money for the pedestal fund. However, the poem didn’t appear on the statue itself until a bronze plaque was installed to the base in 1903, sixteen years after Lazarus’s death.

Surprisingly, native-born Americans didn’t associate the Statue with immigration until five decades later. In the late 1930s, Slovenian-American writer Louis Adamic had become alarmed that immigration had slowed to a trickle due to quotas that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had imposed as World War Two threatened from abroad. Adamic began a one-person campaign to spread the message of Lazarus’s poem, traveling around the country giving speeches to help Americans realize the small and large contributions that immigrants have made to the history and culture of the United States.

That message still resonates strongly today. In 2016, over 4.5 million people visited the Statue, setting a record. Visitors drawn to the Statue recognize that its history and presence represents the rich diversity that permeates the United States to this day.

JPMorgan Chase celebrates the Statue alongside Americans new and old. After all, a few of the company’s predecessors helped bring this iconic monument to freedom into fruition by helping with pedestal fundraising. Among them was William L. Strong, founder of The New York Security & Trust Co. which later merged with The Liberty National Bank and eventually became part of JPMorgan Chase & Co.

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