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A photograph of the Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty

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I think a statue is not just a statue. I think symbols really matter...maybe they do more than reams and reams of legislation and paper and print.

Meryl Streep, actress

1854...427,833 new arrivals.


1890-1900... An average of one million immigrants a year.


In 1885, the Republic of France, critical naval allies during the American Revolution, donates the largest statue in the world, ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’, to the Republic of America. The statue will celebrate America’s century of independence. To ship it, the statue is broken down into 350 pieces. And now, scattered across Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbour, it sits in 214 crates. The problem is that New York is broke. No one can afford to re-assemble it. Six other cities, less affected by the recent recession, have the money and bid to build it.


But Hungarian immigrant, Joseph Pulitzer, owner of America’s biggest newspaper, won’t let Liberty go. A million people read his papers every day. Through his chain of papers, he launches the biggest fundraising campaign ever in America.

“It would be an irrecoverable disgrace to New York City and the American republic to have France to send us this splendid gift without us even having provided so much as a landing place for it. We must raise the money.”

Pulitzer prints the names and notes attached to the donations. A group of children donate a dollar from "the money we saved to go to the circus with." Nearly 121,000 donations flood in from across the country. Building commences.


Just to hold the 46m high statue upright requires a pedestal the height of a 30 storey office block. It will be the biggest concrete structure in the world. Over 240 men work over a gruelling winter to complete it. Next comes Liberty’s enormous iron skeleton and 28,117 kilos of hand sculpted copper wrapping. The unusual shape makes safety scaffolding impossible so it is as difficult as it is dangerous. 300 copper pieces need to be fitted with more than 300,000 rivets to the skeleton; her robes have over 3,360 sq ms of copper. Her outstretched arm is 12.8ms long and just one fingernail weighs over one and a half kilos.

After six months of construction, Liberty’s face is winched into position. (It’s said the sculptor modelled the face on his own mothers.)


She’s a functioning light house till 1902 but after 25 years, Liberty’s copper oxidises and turns green and she becomes a beacon to the world. The poet Emma Lazarus famously gives Liberty her voice:

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Over the next two decades, over 12 million immigrants pass Liberty on the way to Ellis Island. Generally, Irish, Russians and Italians go to the big cities, the Germans and the Scandinavians to the mid west and the farm land. From 1880-1930, 24 m new immigrants arrive in America. A guidebook prepares arrivals:

“Forget your customs and ideals. Select a goal and pursue it with all your might. You will experience a bad time but sooner or later you will achieve your goal. Don’t take a moment’s rest. Run.”

But the sheer numbers scare the White Anglo Saxon Protestant core of America. A 1921 Act effectively introduces a quota system which is then adopted by everyone from employers to universities.

“It was that policy which shut the door on immigrants who desperately needed...refuge and instead perished in their millions in the camps of the Final Solution.” Simon Schama

Did you know?

The ships that brought immigrants were so dangerous they were known as ‘coffin-ships’ and ‘paper-ships’. ‘On one voyage 108 German passengers died out of a total of 544.’ But by 1880, the number of immigrants dying at sea, for the entire year, was down 269 Hugh Brogan: The Penguin History of the USA., Liberty’s sandal is 32 times bigger than a human foot. If she wanted a replacement shoe, Liberty would have to ask for a size 879., More than 100m Americans can now trace their ancestry back to those who came through Ellis Island., At the dawn of the 20th century there were more Italians in New York than there were in Rome.