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Book Review: 'Liberty's Torch' by Elizabeth Mitchell

Melanie Kirkpatrick

Just in time for Independence Day comes “Liberty’s Torch,” Elizabeth Mitchell’s history of the construction of the most recognizable symbol of American freedom, the Statue of Liberty.

The book’s subtitle is “The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty.” The word “adventure” is a stretch, but “Liberty’s Torch” is an entertaining enough story, and Ms. Mitchell, a journalist and editor, tells it well. Her narrative skills are on display as she weaves a tale that takes us to Paris, Cairo and New York and features a large cast of characters who include such bold-faced names as Victor Hugo, Gustave Eiffel, Ulysses S. Grant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The leading player is the statue’s creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor, artist, entrepreneur and—Ms. Mitchell doesn’t mince words—huckster. Bartholdi liked to think big, literally. He first conceived the notion of an enormous statue of a woman when he was in his 20s, taking his inspiration from the antiquities he observed on a trip to Egypt. As he wrote at the time: “We are filled with profound emotion in the presence of these colossal witnesses, centuries old, of a past that to us is almost infinite, at whose feet so many generations, so many million existences, so many human glories, have rolled in the dust.”

In the 1860s, with a French company building the Suez Canal, Bartholdi proposed to the ruler of Egypt, the khedive, that he be allowed to create a gigantic statue to be positioned at the mouth of the canal. Bartholdi’s statue would depict a woman draped in a flowing robe, wearing a crown and carrying a torch in her upraised right hand. Sound like someone you know? When the khedive declined to commission his Egyptian lady with a lamp, Bartholdi carried the concept across the Atlantic to New York City. He arrived in the U.S. in 1871.

By this time, Bartholdi was peddling a new story about his inspiration for the statue. The idea came to him in 1865, he liked to say, at a dinner party near Versailles at the home of an eminent French scholar and jurist, Édouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye. “Laboulaye adored America and its ideals, almost to the point of fetishism,” Ms. Mitchell writes, in one of many nice sketches of minor characters who pass through these pages. He was the author of a three-volume history of the United States and displayed portraits of Jefferson and Franklin on the wall of his home.

According to Bartholdi, Laboulaye proposed at the dinner party that France and America jointly erect a monument to America’s independence. “At least that is how Bartholdi remembered the conversation years later,” the doubting author wryly observes. Ms. Mitchell is skeptical, too, of Bartholdi’s claim that the inspiration for the statue’s location struck him the moment he entered New York Harbor and spied what is now called Liberty Island. Bartholdi “would perpetuate the legend that Bedloe’s Island was immediately his choice,” she says, even though he recorded in his diary that he scouted sites in Lower Manhattan, Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and elsewhere.

Ms. Mitchell shows that, contrary to legend, the statue was not a gift from the French government to the American government. Rather, Bartholdi raised the money from private subscriptions in both countries. The French and the Americans split the costs, with the former paying for the statue itself and the latter for the pedestal on which it stands. The federal government supplied Bedloe’s Island.

Liberty would never have gotten off the ground without Bartholdi’s fundraising prowess, Ms. Mitchell believes. Most of the money came from entertainments he organized rather than from donors who supported Franco-American friendship or the cause of liberty. In France, he displayed the head of the statue and sold tickets to go up inside it. In the U.S., he enlisted the support of the publisher Joseph Pulitzer. The newspaper magnate ran a front-page editorial, printed the names of donors and hired fundraisers to go door-to-door across the city asking for money. Bartholdi shrewdly appealed to the competitive spirits of New Yorkers by hinting that he might erect his statue in Philadelphia or Boston.

Neither the French nor the American people were enthusiastic about the statue at first. The French had just endured the Franco-Prussian War and were not in a generous frame of mind. Mark Twain spoke for many Americans when he observed: “What do we care for a statue of liberty, when we’ve got the thing itself in its wildest sublimity?”

But by the time the statue finally was dedicated on Oct. 28, 1886, New Yorkers had embraced it. The mayor declared a public holiday. The bells of Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan played “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the “Marseillaise.” Wall Street workers (who did not get the day off) spontaneously created the first ticker-tape parade when they opened their windows and threw ticker tape to the cheering crowd below.

There is one lapse in “Liberty’s Torch,” and it is as colossal as the statue itself. Ms. Mitchell focuses on Bartholdi’s biography and the nuts and bolts of how the statue was engineered, built and paid for. She pays scant attention to what Liberty has come to mean to generations of Americans and to freedom-loving people world-wide. One has only to remember the makeshift Lady Liberty that was erected by protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to grasp that the statue in New York Harbor is much more than a 15-story hunk of metal. It is a shame that a book about the Statue of Liberty tells you next to nothing about how it became the world’s most potent symbol of freedom.

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