Eamonn Lynskey discusses how a statue became the conscience of a nation
Since she first held up her torch on a small island at the mouth of the Hudson River she has dominated the waterway between the states of New York and New Jersey in the United States of America. For those who in the past risked the perilous voyage to the New World, so many of them Irish, in the hope of a better life she was a welcome figure. Something of that moment when people aboard ship first caught sight of her is captured in Charles W. Jefferys’ famous painting, Immigrants’ first view of America, now in the collection of the Mid-Manhattan Picture Gallery. It was indeed a singular and unforgettable moment for the many fleeing hunger and persecution to see her rising before them. One can only imagine their feelings, especially after the long journey – which could take up to two months – over a very unpredictable Atlantic in, very probably, a rudimentary and vulnerable sailing ship.
We owe the original idea of a Statue of Liberty to the French scholar and anti-slavery campaigner Édouard Renê Lefebvre de Laboulaye. Born in 1811, some twenty years after the French Revolution, he was imbued with the spirit of that cataclysmic event and its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. He was equally an admirer of the growth of democracy in the United States of America. At the conclusion of its civil war in 1866, he proposed the idea of a memorial which would celebrate the fraternal relations between the two countries, one which would be ready by 1876 to commemorate the centennial of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
There was also a political dimension on the part of France to these fraternal intentions. Since the time of Columbus, the major European powers had sought to extend their influence wherever and in whatever way they could on the American continents. With the help of France – which saw the war as an opportunity to weaken rival British influence – the American Revolution of 1775-1783 put an end to British colonial power over the North American states. The subsequent civil war of 1861-66 had led to the consolidation of those states into a large and unified nation. France, Britain, and other European nations began to realise that what had previously been a number of disparate colonial possessions had now become a new nation, one that had the potential to be more powerful than any nation that had previously existed since the time of the Pharaohs.
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