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Saturday, April 20, 2024

We are misinterpreting the Statue of Liberty

How the Statue of Liberty’s true meaning has been warped 


By ALEX MOTAWI — almotawi@ucdavis.edu


The Statue of Liberty is one of the greatest gifts the U.S. has ever received and is iconic to our society. It has represented safety, friendship and freedom for both Americans and immigrants for many years and truly embodies the U.S. The statue, obtained as a gift from France and constructed in 1875, is a beacon of hope. However, the original message has been warped over the years, and it’s time to finally recognize the true meaning behind the iconic statue.

The Statue of Liberty is the brainchild of Édouard de Laboulaye, a French anti-slavery activist and political expert. The staunch anti-slavery activist proposed the idea to celebrate and honor the end of slavery in the U.S. in 1865. In conjunction with the sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the first draft of the statue had one stark difference from the statue standing on Ellis Island today: The left hand of Lady Liberty was originally blueprinted holding broken shackles and a chain. However, this strong anti-slavery sentiment never even made it to construction and was replaced by a book instead.

Due to France lacking the full funds to finance the statue and needing the help of U.S. backers to complete the project, Laboulaye didn’t end up with full creative control while designing the statue. With some backers unwilling to support the project if the shackles were included, Laboulaye was forced to revise the piece. However, the project was still able to reach completion with the theme mostly intact.

Even if you didn’t know that part of the story, the purpose of the monument was still plenty obvious until intentionally obscured. We are to blame for warping the statue to be solely about immigration and not the freedom of enslaved people. Think about the part of the monument nobody ever sees due to the massive height of the pedestal — the feet. Along Lady Liberty’s feet lie broken shackles and chains to represent the freedom of enslaved people, but they can only be seen from above. And to further draw away the minds of observers came the plaque, which was added in 1909, decades after the original construction. While the words on the plaque are noble and part of the U.S.’s identity as a safe haven for immigrants, they are also a facade covering the intended meaning of the monument.

This wasn’t just a con-job done over a hundred years ago; the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) has been changing key facts about the statue’s creation until just recently. In a memo from 2000, the NPS refused to acknowledge that Laboulaye had any part in the ideation of the statue. It took until 2011, over 100 years after the creation of the monument, for the NPS to finally recognize the true reason the monument was created. Our own government pulled the wool over our eyes for over a century because they didn’t want to celebrate the end of slavery.

I think that’s absolutely unacceptable and that we should hold our government to a higher standard (even though the current state of our politics is uninspiring, to say the least.) Because of these historic misconceptions, we have a long way to go if we want to educate our citizens on the true meaning of the statue. Right now, most people don’t understand, and I can’t blame them for it as they’ve been deliberately misled by our government for decades. I’m not saying that lets people like Sarah Palin off the hook for butchering the statue’s meaning so badly on her campaign trail; what I’m saying is that it’s going to take a bit of elbow grease to make up for our century-long mistake.

It is important that we recognize slavery as a dark part of our past and remember it through monuments like the Statue of Liberty so that we don’t let history repeat itself. It’s shameful that our nation felt the need to hide it from its citizens the way it did. The Statue of Liberty has chains for a reason — it’s time to acknowledge them and the rest of the monument like the creators envisioned.


Written by: Alex Motawi — almotawi@ucdavis.edu


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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