Statue of Liberty

An Idea Is Born

By Benjamin Levine and Isabelle F. Story
National Park Service, 1961

This Web Version

At a dinner at the home of Edouard de Laboulaye, near Versailles, France, in the summer of 1865, was born the idea of presenting to the United States a monument commemorating the birth of that still-young nation and the friendship that had endured between it and France ever since the American Revolution. It was shortly after the close of the American Civil War and just after the assassination of President Lincoln-an event that had greatly affected France and particularly its simple people, who felt they had lost a living symbol of freedom. So deeply had the French masses been moved by the tragedy, that they got up a collection (the limit kept to 2 cents from any one donor, to maintain the character of the gift) and with it had designed a gold medal, which was sent to the widow of the murdered President with the message: "Tell Mrs. Lincoln that in this little box is the heart of France." The medal bore, in French, the words:
Dedicated by French democracy to Lincoln, twice-elected President of the United States-honest Lincoln who abolished slavery, reestablished the union, and saved the Republic, without veiling the Statue of Liberty.
Throughout the Civil War, when imperial and official France-the France of the hereditary caste system-sought to aid the Confederacy, De Laboulaye, a historian, professor, and outstanding interpreter of the American Government, had been the liberal most worth listening to. In a review of a book by Agenor, Count Gasparin, who was an abolitionist on the grounds of Christian ethics, De Laboulaye has written:
Until a new sort of politics was lately found for us, it was accepted on both sides of the ocean as a virtual article of faith that America and France are sisters.... We claim that France never fights for an interest, only for an idea. I accept this proud device and ask: If we aid the South, what idea shall we be defending?
So it was fitting that the idea that resulted in the Statue of Liberty, now standing guard in New York Harbor, was the outgrowth of a discussion held at De Laboulaye's dinner that summer evening in 1865. The guests were prominent, in letters, politics, and the arts. One of them was a young Alsatian sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. Inevitably, international relations and international ingratitude were discussed. Some held that it was impossible for gratitude to exist among nations. Doubt was expressed that France could even count on the United States, in time of French emergency,.to remember the aid of France in the American Revolution. De Laboulaye took issue, maintaining that nations, although they might not remember treaties, generally did remember the names and deeds of individuals who came to their aid in the hour of crisis. The bond between France and the United States was a lasting one, he asserted; and he suggested that were a monument to be built in the United States to commemorate the achieving of that country's independence, it should be constructed through the joint efforts of the two countries.

The young sculptor Bartholdi listened and remembered the conversation during his years with the Army of the East during the FrancoPrussian War. When the conflict ended and Alsace was in the hands of the conqueror, he thought of America as a possible new homeland. With this idea in mind he again visited De Laboulaye at Versailles. Among the guests there were many distinguished men whose sympathies toward the United States were well known. They talked again of American sentiment, and the diverse opinions that prevailed in the United States.

And again De Laboulaye expressed confidence in the friendship of the United States and the belief that at the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of its independence revived friendship for France would be displayed. He suggested that Bartholdi go to America, study the situation, and discuss with friends there the possibility that they work together on a monument to commemorate the long friendship of France and the United States. Inspired, Bartholdi left for the United States, bearing letters of introduction from the eminent men with whom the project had been discussed at Versailles. During the ocean voyage he conceived the idea for the proposed monument; but he always maintained that the plan did not actually crystallize until he saw New York Harbor. By the time he had landed, he was convinced that he had found the idea for which his friends had hoped.


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