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This Day in History: France Gives America the Statue of Liberty

November 11, 2013 - 10:17am
On Oct. 28, 1886, France dedicated the Statue of Liberty to the United States as a sign of friendship and to commemorate 100 years of freedom from England.

France and the United States were once foes. Though the two countries never went to war, there was strong anti-Americanism on the part of the European country for several decades. However, France was an ardent supporter of the American Revolutionary War, and a firm relationship between the countries has been around since 1776. The 19th century saw a bonding of the nations. That's why, on Oct. 28, 1886, the people of France gave the United States a massive and generous gift to commemorate the growing friendship: the Statue of Liberty.

The Making of the Statue
A lot of planning went into this gift. In 1865, French political thinker Edouard de Laboulaye suggested that the French build a monument to the United States in the name of freedom, abolition and democracy. He hoped that highlighting America's successes would inspire the French to create their own democracy, embrace the Enlightenment and overthrow the dictatorial monarchy. Laboulaye turned to sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who showed full support of the idea and started designing the proposed monument with the help of renowned engineer Gustave Eiffel - the same man who created the Eiffel Tower.

Political Conflict
The country was largely divided between supporting the monarchy and moving forward into the Enlightenment, which focused on the natural right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Some thought the movement was a call for uprising and mayhem. So Laboulaye and Bartholdi determined that the statue should be publicized as a symbol of peace between France and the United States, rather than a promotion of revolution. It was named "Liberty Enlightening the World," and though they presented it as a way of honoring the success of democracy and liberty in America, it was quite clear that the monument was a call for political change in France. That's why the French government refused to contribute to the project, so it was up to the people to find the funds - the public collected $250,000 through lotteries and fundraisers.

A Symbol of Freedom
The purpose of the statue was to celebrate 100 years of solidarity between the two countries as well as to commemorate the centennial of America's independence from England. It was placed on what is now known as Liberty Island in the center of Manhattan's New York Harbor, where it still stands. The monument depicts the Roman goddess of freedom Libertas holding a torch up to the sky and, in the other hand, a tablet that reads, "July IV, MDCCLXXVI," the date of the Declaration of Independence. The broken chains at her feet represent her breaking free from oppression and moving forward into liberation.

Today, the statue is a U.S. icon found on commemorative coins, postcards and other aspects of popular culture, and it welcomes immigrants and visitors coming in through the Atlantic as a sign of liberty and justice for all.