Edward Berenson

 

On his book The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story

Cover Interview of May 07, 2012

The wide angle

My intellectual trajectory in coming to this book stems from my longstanding interest in France.

I’m an American who has studied France and its history for the past 30 years.  I was born in America and developed something of a second identity in France; the Statue of Liberty was born in France, with a second—and eventually dominant—identity in the United States.

Some years back, I discovered a number of surprising things about the Statue of Liberty while writing an article about American views of the French Republic.  Like most people, I thought the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to United States.  In fact, neither government had much to do with it.  Napoleon III, the French ruler at the time Liberty was conceived, actively opposed the idea.  The U.S. government, for its part, refused to put up a single dollar, even though the project’s American supporters had promised that their country would fund the Statue of Liberty’s tall, granite-faced pedestal.

Napoleon III knew that the Frenchmen who created the Statue of Liberty meant it as a critique of his authoritarian government.  In this country, the statue at first seemed an alien import, a symbol not of liberty but of the putative horrors of the Paris Commune, a powerful urban insurrection that engulfed the French capital in the of spring 1871.  Karl Marx dubbed the Commune the world’s first proletarian revolt.  Perhaps for that reason, certain conservative Americans considered Bartholdi’s colossal goddess a Trojan horse and feared, as one writer put it,  that “the red-fool fury of the Seine” would take up residence in the United States.