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Phil-osophically Speaking - July 2, 2010

The Majesty of Lady Liberty

A cold and steady rain fell on the afternoon of Oct. 28, 1886, but it didn’t deter tens of thousands of excited spectators from huddling around the southern tip of Manhattan to see the great unveiling. At the given signal the veil began to slowly drop from the massive statue, 151 feet tall (not including the still-to-be-built pedestal) as “Lady Liberty” triumphantly overlooked the great New York Harbor.

It was a galvanizing moment and it was greeted, as one writer noted, with a “thunderous cacophony of salutes from steamer whistles, brass bands, and booming guns, together with clouds of smoke from the cannonade that engulfed the statue for the next half hour.” President Grover Cleveland inaugurated the festivities by noting how this colossus differed from other monuments of history for it represented peace and not war, although the statue, a gift from France, was presented only to celebrate the friendship between the people of France and those of the U.S.

However you wish to look at it, the statue is a sight to see and one great way to celebrate July 4 is to take a little excursion to Battery Park and see one of the most glorious symbols ever erected to pay tribute to man’s timeless yearning to be free. We can also reflect a little on the irony that France was the presenter and that so much was made of the friendship between France and America.

True, gratitude to France was still palpable. Their intervention after America’s stunning victory over the British at the Battle of Saratoga helped   to secure our independence. But then again, one really needed dramatic circumstances to be reminded of it. In 1917, when General John Pershing arrived in France with the American doughboys during WWI, he was mindful of that debt when he proclaimed: “Lafayette, we are here!” It was a reference to the dashing young soldier who sailed to America to join Washington’s army in the fight for independence.

France, for sure, weighed the scales carefully before committing itself to America’s War of Independence. Although England was their archenemy for more than three centuries, King George III was still a fellow monarch and the ideals of the American Revolution threatened the legitimacy of the French Monarchy. Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold and it proved too tasty a morsel for France to pass up the opportunity of driving a dagger into the heart of England as repayment for its past defeats.

The truth is France’s relationship with America, notwithstanding the American Revolution, has been a very uneasy one. Although the French  were on the North American Continent well before their rival England (Henry V wanted nothing to do with the American wilderness) it would be England and not France who would ultimately establish communities in the form of colonies, 13 of them,  all along the Atlantic coast. England would be the only European power that had the foresight to bring their women over to the New World assuring that English children would be born and raised here, thereby establishing deep roots to the new land as well as connections to the other English colonies. They spoke the same language, came from the same culture and practiced the same religion. Meanwhile, France’s connection barely stretched beyond fur trappers, mostly single and childless.

What France could not do by colonization, they would attempt with military force. England and France seemed to be perpetually at war and the “Seven Years War” known as the “French and Indian War” on the American continent left deep scars. The French would align themselves with the native tribal nations and Indian raids convulsed English settlements in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and New York. The massacre of Fort William Henry, the central event in the bestseller and hit movie The Last of the Mohicans was based on an actual event in the French and Indian War.

At the conclusion of the war, France was compelled to cede all lands east of the Mississippi to the British. While ties were restored between France and Americans during the American Revolution the relationship would unravel when France experienced its own Revolution that forged a military dictatorship under Napoleon. Unlike the American Revolution, the French Revolution during its bloody “Reign of Terror,” devoured its children.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the French seized and plundered some 300 American vessels carrying goods to British ports. Hoping to avoid war, President John Adams sent a peace commission to Paris. But the French foreign minister Charles de Talleyrand refused to meet with them and instead suggested through three unnamed agents (known as “X, Y and Z”) that talks could begin after France received bribes and a 12 million loan from the young republic.

 America was outraged upon learning about the demand: “Millions for defense, not one cent for tribute” became the battle cry that led to the “Quasi-War” — an undeclared Franco-American naval conflict in the Caribbean from 1798 to 1800. During America’s great Civil War, France toppled the Mexican government and sought to undermine the Union. Secretary of State William Seward wanted the U.S. to declare war but President Abraham Lincoln wisely sidestepped the issue.

In the 20th century, America twice saved France in the two World Wars and propped them up both militarily and economically through the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. Nevertheless, in 1966 Charles DeGaulle demanded the removal of all American soldiers from French soil. President Lyndon Johnson fired back asking if the order included the bodies of American soldiers buried in French cemeteries.

After Sept. 11 it was England, far more than France, that stood with America against the forces of terror. By this time the French intellectual Jean Francois Revel observed that if you take away anti-Americanism there is nothing left of French political thought. Still their gift of the Statue of Liberty, so symbolic of American ideals, resonates deeply and indelibly in the hearts of our countrymen. It took 20 years for the sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, to complete his immense creation. Indeed, President Grover Cleveland got it right during Lady Liberty’s unveiling that while  “statues of old depicted a fierce, warlike god, filled with wrath and vengeance, this one exhibited a peaceful deity keeping watch before the open gates of America.”

Her presence seemed to mock the ancient “Colossus of Rhodes” that depicted the Greek God Helios. That’s why Emma Lazarus’s immortal poem “The New Colossus” begins with “Not like the Brazen Giant of Greek Fame” for this is a new order. Lady Liberty, unlike Helios, is not holding any weapon but she is holding in one hand the law and in the other a torch held triumphantly aloft, the lamp of liberty. The statue is in motion, moving one step forward from the ancient world of despotism and monarchy to a new sunlit world of human liberty. At her ankles are the broken shackles that had once bound mankind but which the law has now set free.

Emma Lazarus’s poem “Give me your tired, your poor” was written in 1883 for a fundraising auction to build Lady Liberty a pedestal. The poem was a sleeper and did not capture the American imagination until two decades later when a plaque bearing the poem was attached to the pedestal. When you are at the New York Harbor, gazing upward at the majesty of Lady Liberty, make sure you read that poem. But don’t read it silently or softly, but as it is supposed to be read, loudly and boldly, a mighty declaration to the world and, I assure you, its tremors will move your very soul.