This is a largely unknown story about Lady Liberty's shackles and the cover up that's ensued since 1865. This is the first that I learn that the Statue of Liberty was, I quote: "given to the U.S. as a monument to acknowledge the end of one of its biggest mistakes — slavery." It's really interesting that the original depiction of Lady Liberty had her "holding broken chains in her left hand, with more broken chains and broken shackles at her feet."
But, what most people don’t know, even today, is that Bartholdi left the broken shackles and chains that were at her feet (my emphasis). These symbols of state-sponsored bondage, human chattel and the hypocrisy of American exceptionalism remain there on the Statue of Liberty as a permanent reminder of the slaves that contributed to the building of the United States.
This project was the brainchild of Edouard de Laboulaye, a French person behind on of our nation's most important icons. Laboulaye was an abolitionist from France and co-founder of the French Anti-Slavery Society. The sculptor, also French, was named Frederic Bartholdi. The two planned all of this in 1865, the very year the U.S. passed the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution officially abolishing slavery. However, due primarily to financing issues, and possibly, ideological ones, as well, as this story intimates, the actual installation on Liberty Island occurred 21 years later in 1886. Bartholdi ultimately had to compromise on this or jeopardize the financing of the project.
As the author muses, perhaps the financiers of this project themselves profited from slavery and were thus resistant to this representation. Or maybe they were just exercising their privilege—and thusly, their power over representation and—much like many folks do today to appear as less racist than they really are, thinking, I suppose, that this detail would get lost over the generations. Only more research can tell.
In any case, a new book by Yasmin Sabina Kahn titled, Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty, delves into this story which is deserving of our attention. Kahn refers to Bartholdi's original depiction where she held broken chains on her left hand, and broken shackles at her feet, symbolizing the end of slavery in the U.S.
This history is totally buried in American lore about Lady Liberty. Geez, what we are not taught or ever told and that our legislatures want to keep us from learning.
Khan, Y. S. (2010). Enlightening the world: the creation of the Statue of Liberty. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
video of Sarah Palin being interviewed at Liberty Island. In it she is
asked about the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, she responded:
Americans to be reminded of other countries because this was gifted us,
of course by the French—other countries warning us to never make the
mistakes that some of them had made.”
statue to warn the U.S. not to commit the mistakes other countries
The problem with her response –American exceptionalism and word salad aside
— is that it has no basis in fact. In other words, it is WRONG.
what Palin suggests. Instead of reminding the United States not to make
mistakes made by other countries, the Statue of Liberty was given to
the U.S. as a monument to acknowledge the end of one of its biggest
mistakes — slavery.
When we ran the story in 2011, we got lots of feedback from readers
who were surprised to learn that our Statue of Liberty was in any way
connected to American slavery. However, several of our readers did some
checking on their own and commented that they couldn’t find information
corroborating our story. Some mentioned that the U.S. National Park
Service (the federal agency responsible for the Statue of Liberty)
offered information on their site that did not line up with what we were
In 2011, the U.S. Park Service made no mention of the chains or the
connection between the emancipation of the American slaves and the gift
from France — the Statue of Liberty. Even though the U.S. Parks Service
was fully aware of the story, they did not mention it on their website
or any of the pamphlets given to tourists when visiting Lady Liberty.
But sometime between 2011 and 2014 the U.S. Parks Service made a
dramatic change. Today, the National Park Service website tells
the story of how the Statue of Liberty came to be in New York’s harbor
and its relationship to slavery. Following is an abbreviated version.
discussed between Laboulaye and Frederic Bartholdi, a French sculptor in 1865, the year the U.S. abolished slavery.
In addition to his abolition work, Laboulaye was also a U.S.
Constitution expert. Although we cannot know this for sure, one can only
imagine that the 1865 signing of the 13th amendment to the U.S.
Constitution would be very important to an abolitionist and likely
fueled Laboulaye’s desire to have the monument built. So, in 1865 he
shared this idea with Bartholdi, who later became the designer of the
statue, working closely with Laboulaye to make Laboulaye’s vision a
The connection between the Statue of Liberty and the abolition of
slavery is one that has been denied for 125 years. Almost from the start
of the project, the American financiers wanted no mention of slavery
and for 125 yrs they got their wish.
Although Laboulaye and Batholdi had envisioned a statue holding
broken chains and shackles (as shown in the image above on the left),
the early financiers that funded the project did not want chains on the
monument. It was the American backers who were most opposed to the
notion that the statue should in anyway acknowledge slavery. Because the
French, who were paying for the statue, were facing difficult economic
times, Laboulaye and Bartholdi relied on Americans to pay for and build
the pedestal where the statue would stand. This was an essential part of
the monument. Without American financial backing, the project could not
be completed, but the American financiers were adamant that Laboulaye
lose the chains and shackles. One can only surmise that some of the
backers may have made their fortunes directly or indirectly
In her book, Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty,
Yasmin Sabina Kahn explained that although Laboulaye came upon the idea
and communicated it to Bartholdi in 1865, the political climate in
France at the time and a lack of funding made it impossible to raise
enough money to get the project off the ground for several years.
Indeed, it took the sculptor years to raise the funds. According to
Kahn, “Bartholdi’s original depiction of Lady Liberty had her holding
broken chains in her left hand, with more broken chains and broken
shackles at her feet. The chains were symbolic of the end of slavery in
the United States.”
In lectures and on speaking tours, noted professor Dr. Joy DeGruy,
frequently talks about the chains that were part of the original
renderings of the Statue of Liberty. DeGruy explains that Bartholdi
intended the statue to represent democracy and to symbolize the end of
all types of oppression. However, according to DeGruy, the American
decision-makers of the day rebuffed Bartholdi for including the chains
and shackles and insisted that he remove them. Bartholdi was adamant
that they remain, although he eventually was forced to compromise
because he didn’t want to risk losing the financial support that was
making the project possible. Finally, he removed the chains from Lady
Liberty’s hand, replacing them with a book.
But, what most people don’t know, even today, is that Bartholdi left
the broken shackles and chains that were at her feet. These symbols of
state-sponsored bondage, human chattel and the hypocrisy of American
exceptionalism remain there on the Statue of Liberty as a permanent
reminder of the slaves that contributed to the building of the United
Because the height of the pedestal built to support the statue makes
it impossible to see the chains and shackles from the ground, most
people visiting Liberty Island remain unaware of them. This is where the
U. S. Parks Service plays a pivotal role.
While it is not surprising that Sarah Palin got it wrong, it should be notedClearly, the chains were obvious when the statue was delivered and installed 125 years ago but that knowledge quickly faded from memory. Aided by the fact that the height of the
that if asked, most of us would likely get it wrong too.
that if asked, most of us would likely get it wrong too.
pedestal made the chains and shackles impossible to see unless one were
viewing the statue from a helicopter, the wishes of the original funders
were fulfilled. No one need know the true meaning of the Statue of
Liberty. For most of the years since the statue’s installation at
Liberty Island, its true meaning has been kept in the dark. Even the
U.S. agency tasked with the responsibility of caring for and educating
the public about the statue had a hand in keeping the true meaning
One contention of those in opposition to the idea that the statue
celebrated the end of slavery was the date the statue was proposed. Due
to lack of funding, more than 20 years passed between the time the
statue was first proposed in 1865 and the actual installation on Liberty
Island in 1886. Those who wanted to downplay the connection between the
statue and slavery insist that the year 1865 played no role in the idea
to build the monument. In a report released by the U.S. Park Service
in 2000, the Park Service claimed that noted abolitionist Edouard de
Laboulaye did not propose the idea of constructing a monument in 1865.
Their report states:
an 1885 fund-raising pamphlet written by the statue’s sculptor, Auguste
Bartholdi, after the death of Laboulaye.
- the year 1865 was a key element of the story;
- Laboulaye is the father of the idea for the monument; and
- he was an abolitionist who wanted to honor the emancipation of the slaves.
change their literature and their website but today they devote pages to
the history of the statue and prominently state that the statue was a
gift to the United States from the people of France to celebrate “the
Union’s victory in the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery.”
You can find this and more at The National Parks Service website.
asked, most of us would likely get it wrong too.
As an American who is a decendent of slaves, I find it all the more shameful that this country continues to have countless monuments honoring men known to have been slaveholders but nothing honoring the millions whose blood, sweat and tears built this country.
To all who made that happen, I say thank you.
Publisher, LA Progressive
(Dr. Joy DeGruy can be seen in the video below. She talks about the
statue at about 43 seconds into the video. She’s a great storyteller.
Watch it – you won’t be disappointed.)