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A Closer Look At The Statue Of Liberty Reveals This Striking Detail About Her Feet

Jan 4, 2021

Statue of Liberty chain - National Park Service
In the busy harbor of New York City, one of the most famous monuments in the world gazes out over the calm waters according to this article from Approaching by boat, visitors draw ever closer to the colossus dubbed Lady Liberty, with her iconic crown and torch looming into view. But how many of them will spot this often-overlooked detail at the statue’s feet – a symbol with a powerful meaning behind it?
Ever since its completion more than 130 years ago, the Statue of Liberty has stood as a symbol of the United States. For decades, it was the earliest glimpse of New York for travelers arriving in the city, a beacon for the steamships that carried immigrants and tourists towards the Big Apple. And even now, when most people arrive by plane, its striking silhouette remains famous across the globe.
Of course, everyone thinks they know the Statue of Liberty: a woman wrapped in a flowing robe, holding her torch aloft to the heavens. On her head, she wears a seven-pointed crown, while her left hand clasps a tablet bearing the date of American Independence. But what about the monument’s lesser-known features?
Millions of visitors flock to Liberty Island annually and file through the entrance at the base of the famous statue. But surprisingly few of them notice the feature that’s hidden nearby. Overlooked by many, this poignant detail hints at the lesser-known symbolism behind America’s most beloved monument.
So what does the Statue of Liberty actually stand for? Surprisingly, its meaning is not understood as widely as you might think. First conceived in 1865 by the French poet and campaigner Édouard de Laboulaye, the monument was ostensibly designed to mark the 100-year anniversary of U.S. independence. But there was another layer of intended symbolism that many modern tourists often miss.
Although he was French, Laboulaye greatly admired the United States and the values of freedom and liberty that the nation had come to represent. And so, as the centennial approached, he put forward a novel idea. To mark the close friendship between his country and America, he suggested a remarkable gift.
As luck would have it, the French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi heard Laboulaye’s idea and decided to make it into a reality. And before long, he’d come up with the world-famous design. The gift, he decided, would take the form of a statue more than 300 feet high, packed with symbols representing the United States.
The Statue of Liberty’s crown, for example, was intended to represent light shining out across the rest of the planet. The tablet features the date of the Declaration of Independence in Roman numerals, commemorating the founding of the United States. But did you know that there were other, more subtle, symbols that Bartholdi worked into his design?
Laboulaye and Bartholdi’s vision didn’t come cheap, of course. And in order to raise the money needed to complete the ambitious project, large-scale fundraising drives were launched on both sides of the Atlantic. In France, the cost of the statue itself was partly covered by various lotteries and shows.
Over in America a pedestal needed to be constructed in order to support the statue once it arrived. But after various events and benefits, there still weren’t enough funds to begin work. The publisher Joseph Pulitzer then advertised for donors in his New York World newspaper, which eventually raised an impressive $100,000.
But that wasn’t the only hurdle that needed to be overcome before the Statue of Liberty could make its way to the United States. Although Bartholdi envisioned his masterpiece being crafted in vast sheets of copper, he didn’t know how to make such a large structure stable. And who better to help him solve this puzzle than the French engineer Alexander Gustaf Eiffel, who would soon go on to build another legendary landmark in Paris, France?
In order to support Bartholdi’s statue, Eiffel designed a complex metal sub-structure to sit beneath the copper outer layer. And finally, in the summer of 1884 the work was finished. But that was just the beginning of an epic endeavor that saw this generous gift travel thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
After taking shape in Paris, the Statue of Liberty was disassembled into several hundred parts and loaded onto Isère, a frigate bound for New York. And on June 17, 1885, it reached on Bedloe’s Island, a scrap of land some 1.5 miles off the coast of Manhattan. Ten months later, the pedestal was finished and work on installing the monument could finally begin.
Eventually, on October 28, 1886, the Statue of Liberty was unveiled in a dedication ceremony overseen by President Grover Cleveland. On that day, thousands of people gathered to see Bartholdi’s monument in all its glory. At the time, the torch was crafted from gilded copper and would have reflected the sunlight like fire right across the bay.
And by the time the statue was officially opened, the Gilded Age of America was well underway. As the United States experienced a period of unprecedented prosperity, immigrants began to flood in from around the world. For many of these, a view of Bedloe’s Island – which later became Liberty Island – was the first glimpse they had of their new home.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the Statue of Liberty is still one of America’s most iconic landmarks, playing host to more than three million visitors every year. Previously a beacon of hope and possibility for immigrants in search of a new life, it now attracts tourists from across the globe. While some simply settle for a view of the monument from the water, others climb the 162 steps up to the tip of its crown.
Up until 1916 visitors could go even further, ascending to the very tip of the statue’s torch. But then, on July 30, a violent explosion ripped through New York Harbor. It was the middle of World War One, and armaments bound for the Allies were being stored in the bay. But German spies managed to detonate them first.
This created one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions of all time. And the incident affected much of the infrastructure of New York Harbor – including the Statue of Liberty. As a result, the torch section of the monument was closed to the public.
And more than a century later, you’ll find the torch is still off-limits. Its very existence has become part of the lore of the Statue of Liberty, with some describing the closed-off gallery as a hidden or secret room. But that’s not the only thing about the famous monument that visitors have been known to overlook.
As the years passed, the steamships stopped bringing immigrants, and tourists began arriving in New York by airplane rather than boat. But the Statue of Liberty remained one of America’s most recognizable landmarks. And although the world around it has changed, the monument has continued to play an integral role in the history and culture of the United States.
Towards the end of World War Two, for example, the statue’s torch was illuminated in a series of stops and starts, spelling V to symbolize victory in Morse code. Later, in 1970 women’s rights activists placed placards across the monument’s base. And the following year it became a focal point for protests against the Vietnam War.
In fact, the Statue of Liberty has been occupied by a number of activists over the years, its global fame used to shine a spotlight on social and political issues. It’s also taken a starring role in countless movies and television shows, with that instantly-recognizable silhouette serving as a symbol for the United States.
But while you may be familiar with the statue’s iconic crown and torch, did you know that another detail, also rich in symbolism, is located at its base? A close look at Lady Liberty’s lower half reveals that her right foot is lifted, indicating that she’s moving forwards. So what’s she moving away from?
The answer, it turns out, lies in the ideas and beliefs of the man who first suggested this generous gift from France to the United States. As well as being an ardent admirer of America, Laboulaye was also a committed abolitionist. And this attitude is reflected in an easy-to-miss detail lurking by the Statue of Liberty’s feet.
Born in Paris in 1881, Laboulaye had embarked on a career in law before becoming involved in politics and eventually ending up as a senator. But although he was based in France, he took an active interest in the affairs of the U.S. And while some in his country fought to reinstate the monarchy, he came to idolize America’s democratic approach to government.
It wasn’t just America’s ability to govern without kings and queens that appealed to Laboulaye, though. After the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865 the 13th amendment was introduced to outlaw the practice of slavery across the U.S. And that same year, the Anti-Slavery Society was established in France.
Although slavery had technically been outlawed in France some 17 years before abolition in the United States, the society had bigger aims. Its members hoped to see the practice banned in every country around the world. And as both president and co-founder, Laboulaye was a vocal proponent of these lofty goals.
So when Laboulaye first conceived the Statue of Liberty, he envisaged a monument that would celebrate the end of slavery, as well as the primacy of democracy, in the United States. But how could he incorporate these different meanings into one design? Bartholdi thankfully came up with the perfect way to encapsulate these ideas in sculpture form.
With Bartholdi’s design, Laboulaye’s vision became a reality. Near the raised right foot of the Statue of Liberty, the sculptor placed a shattered shackle and chain, cast in the same copper as the rest of the monument. And even though it’s often overlooked by visitors, this feature remains to this day.
Signifying the triumph of liberty over slavery, the chain passes under the statue’s flowing robes before emerging, broken, next to its left foot. And for the few who take note, it probably sends out a powerful message against oppression. But there are some who argue that the world Laboulaye was celebrating has yet to materialize even today.
Image: National Park Service
When Laboulaye proposed the Statue of Liberty, he saw the U.S. as leading the world in the fight against injustice. But, of course, the erection of the monument – and the abolition of slavery – didn’t mark the end of suffering and discrimination for black communities in America. And so, even today, the broken chain continues to provoke mixed emotions.
Over the years, the Statue of Liberty has undergone a number of changes that have altered its appearance. For example, did you know that it wasn’t always green? The copper sheeting that forms the monument was originally brown. But after more than a century spent exposed to the elements in New York Harbor, it’s weathered into the hue that’s now so familiar around the world.
The torch of the statue has also been drastically altered over the decades. Wanting to illuminate the feature from underneath, officials created holes in the torch before it opened. These were then replaced after half a decade by a single strip of glass and a skylight was added at the flame’s tip.
As time passed, more and more glass was placed in the Statue of Liberty’s torch. And by the time that workers moved to restore it in the 1980s, it was a world away from what Bartholdi had initially intended. Unable to renovate the heavily altered flame, they took it out altogether and installed a replica in its place, this time mimicking the original design.
Interestingly, it isn’t just the physical appearance of the Statue of Liberty that’s shifted over the years. For many Americans, the symbolism of the monument has also altered. And even though the broken shackle and chain can still be seen, Laboulaye’s anti-slavery message often passes visitors by.
In 2019 the meaning behind the Statue of Liberty was further revised by Ken Cuccinelli, the Citizenship & Immigration Services chief during the Trump presidency. More than a century earlier, in 1903 a plate had been installed on the monument containing the words of a celebrated poem, The New Colossus.
Penned back in 1883 to help raise funds for the statue’s installation, The New Colossus talks about America as a sanctuary welcoming people from around the world. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the poem reads. But as Trump’s government clamped down on immigration, Cuccinelli argued that the famous ode should be revised. According to reports, he suggested that the words “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge” should now be included at the end.
Although Cuccinelli’s comments were heavily criticized, they illustrate just how much the meaning behind the Statue of Liberty has altered over time. But despite these changes, the broken shackle and chain remain, marking a time when America led the world in the fight for human rights. And the monument in New York Harbor isn’t the only famous U.S. landmark with a few secrets to tell.
In 1975, for example, workers renovating the bathrooms of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., discovered a cavernous room hidden beneath the ground. It had apparently been created during the monument’s construction in 1914 and then forgotten about for 60 years. And in South Dakota, a secret chamber is located behind Mount Rushmore’s towering facade.
Like the broken shackle and chain at the Statue of Liberty’s feet, these hidden features remain unseen by most of the tourists who flock to these monuments every year. But with plans to reopen the chamber beneath the Lincoln Memorial, are these overlooked aspects of popular attractions about to have their moment in the sun? In New York, there may yet be time for Laboulaye’s message to get through.

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