It was late one October morning several years ago when I boarded the ferryboat to take another load of tourists from Manhattan Island to Liberty Island. I had earlier thought about skipping the visit to see the Statue Of Liberty because I was suffering a headache and New York’s weather during the week of my visit was drizzly with light rain the entire time. However, I figured that I’d regret flying all the way to the Big Apple without paying my respects to lady liberty.
As a lover of great works of art, it wasn’t too difficult to convince myself to pay homage to La Liberté éclairant le monde (Liberty enlightening the world), the actual name of the colossal statue in New York Harbor. Besides that, later in the month, October 28th, was the 101st anniversary of the dedication of the statue.
During the ferry ride, I tried to envision what it must have been like, back in 1886 when President Grover Cleveland was on hand for the grand ceremony and dedication. My guidebook told me there was a parade that began at Madison Square Garden that marched to Battery Park via 5th Avenue and Broadway. The very first instance of New York’s tradition of a ticker-tape parade was inaugurated when traders at the NYSE tossed paper tape from their ticker machines from the windows down to the festivities below them.
I let my imagination wander as I mentally transformed the ferryboat to the luxurious yacht that transported President Cleveland to what was then known as Bedloe’s Island so he could officiate the main ceremony. The President is quoted to have said that the Statue of Liberty’s “stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until Liberty enlightens the world”. There was to be a fireworks display, but crappy weather caused a postponement until the following month. How fitting that my visit and Mr. Cleveland’s were both made during unpleasant weather conditions.
The statue had been built under the shroud of controversy. Many Americans were upset that the gift required the United States foot the bill for the pedestal. There was some jingoism as some Americans believed that the design and construction should have been done by Americans and not the French.
Even the dedication ceremony was controversial. None of the general public was allowed on site during the ceremony. Only official dignitaries were admitted. No women aside from the designer’s wife and the mayor’s granddaughter were present. The excuse being that officials were afraid that women could be trampled in the crush of people.
The region’s suffragists were offended but chartered their own boat so they could steam as closely as possible to the statue. The suffragettes noted that Liberty was embodied as a woman. The activists made speeches advocating the right to vote for women.
Liberty and some sort of goddess depicting the concept did not begin with La Liberté éclairant le monde or the United States as many of us like to believe. It likely began with the first civilizations. Probably the Babylonians idealized liberty for the higher classes. Indeed, they had their own depictions of lady liberty. Later, the Romans paid homage to their own goddess of liberty, Libertas. It has been argued that the American statue was closely modeled by depictions of the Roman Libertas.
All of the oppressed people of the world and of the United States have looked to the Statue Of Liberty as the symbol of their own liberation and freedoms. The struggle for full civil rights for African Americans, native peoples, immigrants, women and now the LGBT people have found strength and inspiration from the statue named after the concept.
Someday, hopefully soon, the United States will, in fact, be the home of liberty and justice for ALL. Then, not only will we have a statue, but an entire nation that not only depicts Liberty Enlightening The World, but also demonstrates Liberty Enlightening The World as reality.
My daydream ended when one of my fellow ferryboat passengers spotted part of the statue through the misty air and shouted, “There she is!” I cleaned the moisture from my eyeglasses so I could see her, too. We could only see the lower half of the statue, but she was still magnificent to view. I thought that the vision was an apt metaphor about our country’s own state of liberty.
Regarding liberty,the Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Thomas Jefferson, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.”