The claim: The U.S. rejected France’s first gift of a statue of liberty, which was extended as a tribute to freedom of former Black slaves, and replaced with the statue that now graces New York harbor
A post by a Facebook user claims that France had originally given a much different statue of liberty to the United States, honoring freed Black slaves, but that it was rejected and replaced by the current statue.
The post, which included a #BlackHistoryMonth hashtag, is imposed over a photo of a statue of a Black woman holding a lantern in her left hand, intimating that it was the one purportedly rejected.
On its face, the claim is false, as France gave the U.S. only one statue, and it resides in New York Harbor. It was the only monument offered by the French.
Lady Liberty’s history
In any case, the post involves two elements related to the statue: first, the proposal for a gift by France to the U.S., made by Edouard de Laboulaye, a French political thinker, U.S. Constitution expert and an abolitionist; and second, the creation of the statue by an artist he commissioned, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi.
Edward Berenson, author of “Statue of Liberty: A Translatlantic Story,” published in 2012, writes that Bartholdi’s concept morphed from “a gigantic female fellah, or Arab peasant” into “a colossal goddess.”
That original concept was developed in 1869, when Bartholdi had proposed building a statue of a torch-bearing woman at the southern end of the Suez Canal.
A tourist’s hand is seen at the crown of the Statue of Liberty in this file photo from February 19, 2019, in New York City.
To prepare his proposal for Ismail Pasha, Egypt’s westernizing ruler, Bartholdi studied art like the Colossus, refining the concept for the Roman goddess Libertas, according to Barry Moreno, author of several books about the statue. “Taking the form of a veiled peasant woman,” writes Moreno, “the statue was to stand 86 feet high, and its pedestal was to rise to a height of 48 feet.” Early models of the statue were called “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia.”
Bartholdi did not get the commission. The Port Said lighthouse was erected instead.
Berenson writes that historians have found a series of sketches and clay models done between 1870-71 in which the original figure of an Egyptian woman became Roman and Greek. One model shows broken chains at the woman’s feet, another broken chain in her left hand. That was changed to show only the broken chain at her feet.
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The National Park Service notes that “classical images of liberty are often depicted in a female form. The statue was modeled after Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty.” The Roman version is frequently depicted wearing a Phrygian cap, traditionally worn by freed Roman slaves.
Statue’s meaning for America
According to the National Park Service website, Laboulaye first proposed the idea of a great monument as a gift from France to the United States after the Union victory over the Confederacy. A member of the French Anti-Slavery society that was founded in 1865, Laboulaye was a strong supporter of President Abraham Lincoln and “saw abolition not only as a way to eliminate immorality, but also as a way to protest repressive tendencies in France.”
The Park Service says that when the 155-foot tall statue, officially called “Liberty Enlightening the World,” was completed, “it not only represented democracy but also symbolized American independence and the end of all types of servitude and oppression.”
“A broken shackle and chain lie at the Statue’s right foot,” the NPS says. “The chain disappears beneath the draperies, only to reappear in front of her left foot, its end link broken. However, although the broken shackle is a powerful image, the meaning behind it was not yet a reality for African Americans in 1886.”
Berenson adds another twist to the story in relating that by 1871, Laboulaye had recoiled at the “immoderate” actions by America’s Reconstruction regime.
“The cautious professor disliked the Radical Republicans’ use of federal power to deprive former Confederates of citizenship rights while abruptly extending such rights to all adult Black men,” Berenson writes. “Under Laboulaye’s influence, the Statue of Liberty’s early meaning as a symbol of abolition surrendered to a new significance as a sign of the return to normalcy, to American’s republican continuity since 1776 to the restraining authority of its Constitution, and to the majesty of the law.”
Regarding the issue of a black statue of liberty, the park service commissioned a report, released in 2000, by Dr. Rebecca M. Joseph, who was formerly the Park Service’s senior anthropologist for the Northeast Region. The NPS says the report’s appearance on its website does not imply endorsement by the NPS or its conclusion.
Was the statue once of a Black woman?
The report describes as a “legend” that the idea for the statue was conceived at a dinner party at Laboulaye’s home in Versailles in 1865 following Lincoln’s assassination. This notion, the report says, was traceable to an 1885 fundraising pamphlet written by Bartholdi after Laboulaye’s death.
The report says, “Bartholdi was largely apolitical and adapted his self-presentation to advance his career as an artist.”
Although Bartholdi denied any link between the final Liberty statue and his works for a Suez monument, the NPS report says, “The statue’s design almost certainly evolved from an earlier concept Bartholdi proposed for a colossal monument in Egypt, for which the artist used his drawings of Egyptian women as models.”
“Bartholdi’s preliminary design for the Statue of Liberty is consistent with contemporary depictions of Liberty, but differs markedly from sculptures representing freed American slaves and Civil War soldiers,” the report finds. “Bartholdi changed a broken shackle and chain in the statue’s left hand to tablets inscribed “July IV, MDCCLXXVI” (July 4, 1776) at Laboulaye’s request, to emphasize a broader vision of liberty for all mankind. There is no evidence that Bartholdi’s ‘original’ design was perceived by white American supporters or the United States government as representing a Black woman, or was changed on those grounds.”
In addition, the report says, the statue was associated with the Civil War and abolition until near the end of the 19th century.
Regarding the issue of whether a Black woman was the original model for the statue, the report says, “The temporal proximity and aesthetic overlap between Bartholdi’s Egyptian proposal and the Statue of Liberty project, and the preliminary nature of the statue’s study models, makes it impossible to rule out an 1870-71 Liberty model that has design origins in Bartholdi’s drawings of black Egyptian women in 1856.”
At the same time, the report says, “Based on the evidence, the connection is coincidental to the development of the Statue of Liberty under Laboulaye’s patronage. We found no corroborating evidence that Edouard Laboulaye or Auguste Bartholdi intended to depict Liberty as a Black woman.”
Regarding how the statue has been viewed historically by many African Americans, the park service, on a website page titled “Abolition,” says that after the statue’s dedication in 1886, the Black press “began to debunk romantic notions of the Statue of Liberty and American History.”
For African Americans, the statue was not viewed as a symbol of democratic government or enlightenment ideals “but rather a source of pain.”
Our ruling: False
We rate this claim FALSE because it was not supported by our research. Our investigation confirms that there was only one Statue of Liberty given to the U.S. by France and finds no evidence that it rejected an earlier version that had been intended as a tribute to former Black slaves.