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The liberty story

GJ Boris Allan
2007-10-27

All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavour, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.

—Blaise Pascal, Pensées (347), 1670

In the USA, Liberty is so real and so tangible that you can touch it – if you visit the statue in New York harbour. The Statue of Liberty is easily recognized, with the lady having a certain nobility and universal appeal not associated with some other US symbols.

Throughout history people have told stories that tried to make ideas such as justice, patriotism, or compassion appear less abstract, more immediate, and (if possible) more tangible – aiming to make the ideas more accessible to more people, and directing thought into preferred channels. Frequently, ideas have been given a visual form by being associated with deities, seers, saints , or various mythical beings (comic-book heroes being a contemporary example). Sometimes the idea is not that abstract or that subtle, as is the case with war-time propaganda posters or the multiple pictures and statues celebrating dictators such as Josef Stalin or Saddam Hussein.

In the northern Americas, immediately after independence from Britain was declared, Virginia’s leaders needed to show that the influence of Britain was no longer, and to emphasize that Virginia was a favoured land. They wanted to promote ideas of independence and self-worth. They had a story to tell, a story that was neither very abstract nor very subtle, so why not tell their story in pictures? Adopted shortly after the declaration of independence, the Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia (1776) made its point by showing two pictures: one picture telling the story of the defeat of tyranny (on the obverse), and one story telling the story of Virginia’s bounty (on the reverse).

On the obverse, the Roman goddess Virtus (virtue or courage) is pictured with her foot on the body of slain Tyrannus (British tyranny) – “a defeated despot” according to Virginia government literature. A royal crown on the ground showed that the colonies had broken free from the control of the British king; a broken chain in Tyranny’s left hand showed a freedom from British restrictions (no longer slaves to Britain); and the useless whip or scourge in the other hand showed that the colonies no longer had to suffer unjustifiable punishment imposed by British laws (again, no longer slaves). It is noteworthy that in the original design one of Virtus’s breasts was exposed, and has remained exposed. Virginia’s motto, Sic Semper Tyrannis (“thus always to tyrants”) appears at the bottom. The virtuous design of the obverse also appears on the Virginia state flag, and the design is used to authenticate official documents if the great seal is not affixed.

On the reverse of the great seal there are three goddesses: Libertas (liberty), Ceres (agriculture), and Aeternitas (eternity) – indicating Virginia’s new liberty, highlighting its abundant crops, and asserting that it would last forever. Virtue and courage shown on the obverse were foremost in the storytellers’ minds, and the other aspects shown on the reverse (including liberty) were subordinate, because in 1776 winning the war was crucially important.

Other state flags and seals of that time emphasized different things, so why concentrate on Virginia? Virginia was an extremely important colony, the oldest, and in later US narratives rightly known as the home of presidents (many early US presidents were from Virginia). Four white male slave owners designed the seal: one (Richard Henry Lee) was sixth president of the United States in Congress assembled under the Articles of Confederation; one (George Mason) was author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (model for the US bill of rights); one (George Wythe) was a signer of the US declaration of independence; and the other (Robert Carter Nicholas) was president of the Virginia Convention, and a member of Virginia’s first Court of Appeals.

All four owned slaves, but Lee, Mason and Wythe turned against the institution, and were caught in a situation where their hearts were at variance with their finances – given the lifestyle to which they were accustomed, it was not easy to become slave-free. Wythe became an active abolitionist, freeing his slaves and providing for their support. Thoughts about slavery were probably omnipresent in their thoughts when celebrating independence, especially for Wythe (the principal designer of the seal) who left bequeaths to a slave and her son in his will.

Nicholas, the fourth member, was probably thinking about the problems of slavery, but perhaps from a different perspective. For example, years before, two slaves belonging to Nicholas had absconded, and he had put an advertisement in the paper, and then another:

RUN from the Subscriber's plantation in Albemarle county, a tall slim Negro fellow, named GEORGE; he is marked in the face as the Gold Coast slaves generally are, had the usual clothing of labouring Negroes, ... As I have been always tender of my slaves, and particularly attentive to the good usage of them, I hope wherever these fellows [GEORGE and ROBIN] may be apprehended that they will receive such moderate correction as will deter them from running away for the future;...

—RO. C. NICHOLAS, Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg) 15 January 1766

RUN away, some time last spring, from the subscriber's plantation at the Green Mountain, in Albemarle county, a Negro man named GEORGE; he is a tall dark coloured fellow, speaks broken English, has several long marks down each of his cheeks, and was cloathed as plantation Negroes generally are. This same fellow formerly left his overseer, and was out near two years; ...

—RO. C. NICHOLAS, Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg) 7 February 1771

The two goddesses Virtus and Libertas were often associated in people’s minds, and a continuing symbol of the French revolution (Marianne) seems a composite, for she was a woman who struggled against tyranny to achieve liberty for her people. One of the most popular representations of Marianne has been that of Eugène Delacroix: “Liberty Leading the People” (1830) and it should be noted that in Delacroix’s painting Liberty (Marianne) has her breasts exposed – as it was for war-like Virtus on Virginia’s seal. More in keeping with classical tradition, Simon Louis Boizot had earlier produced “Liberty armed with the sceptre of reason striking down Ignorance and Fanaticism” (1793) in which Liberty was more modestly attired – as is the Statue of Liberty. In the classical tradition, Virtus represented the physical freedom that came from fighting oppression, and Libertas represented the intellectual freedom (and enlightenment) that came from preferring reason to dogmatism.

In 1865 a group of French intellectuals wanted to re-establish the French republic with a representative assembly, because they were living in a country without a national assembly, ruled by Napoléon III, Emperor of the French (the Second Empire). They looked to the ideals embodied in the USA republic as an example they could use but not all was well with the US democratic system – slavery was unacceptable in a free country, yet it was protected in the US constitution. Fortunately for the aspirations of the group (and for the life of slaves), the US civil war meant, by 1865, slavery was on its way out. Group leader, and abolitionist, Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye was pleased that liberty was available to all who lived in the USA, so he thought a gift from France to the USA during the centenary in 1876 could be used to both celebrate the ending of slavery and to promote the republican cause in France. Given the political situation in France of 1865, they did nothing.

The Second Empire ended with the overthrow of Napoléon III in 1870, and group member Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (a sculptor) visited New York in 1871, where he saw the perfect spot on an island in the harbour, and persuaded enough people that the statue was a feasible notion. Then the scope widened – Liberty became part of the freedom story in the commemoration of the US centennial.

Now that many years have passed, and the statue has become such an integral part of marketing the USA, politics and ideology have become an important part of the marketing of Liberty, and all that is entailed – the origin of the statue has become less clear. Partly because there have been so many immigrants, the marketing of the USA has included the selling of America to US Americans to promote national unity. As more than a few US Americans feel over-looked in the doling out of freedom and liberty (and in the pursuit of happiness), there have been accompanying doubts about what the statue truly represents.

In physical terms, Liberty is a very tall woman in flowing robes who holds a torch in one hand and holds a tablet inscribed with the date JULY IV MDCCLXXVI (July 4, 1776) in the other hand. There are discarded chains and a broken shackle at her feet (not visible from ground-level) – as with Virginia’s Virtus. In some senses the statue is a three-dimensional ink-blot (Rorschach) test, with the interpretation of the statue’s significance and meaning often saying more about the person viewing. For example, consider the chains and shackle: do they represent the USA freeing itself from the curse of slavery (Laboulaye’s original idea); or do they symbolize the freedom gained by the colonists after the revolutionary war, with no association with the end of slavery (doubting accounts of the 1865 meeting)? The connection with the end of slavery seems clear to me given the French origin – and disputes about the ideas embodied in the statue extend to those who believe that Liberty herself is modelled on a black woman, though I doubt it. There are arguments even about the 1865 meeting.

The gift is not called the “Statue of Freedom” for a very simple reason – French has only la Liberté, which means both liberty and freedom, whereas English has “freedom” (from pre-Norman Old English and proto-German) and “liberty” (from Norman French and Latin). But what type of liberty? In French, the full name of the statue is “La Liberté éclairant le monde”, usually translated as “Liberty enlightening the world” – no mention of any struggle. In that sense the statue has more in common with Boizot’s painting (reason overcoming ignorance) than that of Delacroix (fighting for the people).

The addition of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The new Colossus” to the pedestal in 1903 took away the French emphasis on enlightenment (and reason) to produce a new US American emphasis on the freeing of huddled masses (“her name/Mother of Exiles”). The poem (now identified with the statue) became the vehicle for a far more effective propaganda. When contemporary US politicians mention the statue, they are far less likely to emphasize enlightenment, and reason overcoming ignorance, than they are to quote from the poem and have ignorance overcome reason by claiming that the ideals symbolized by the statue are mainly to do with immigration. Lazarus’s powerful and laudable message has swamped the more esoteric message of promoting reason (and confronting ignorance). You have only to search through congressional debates to find at least one reference to Emma Lazarus in most sessions.

The story has changed, and the concept has been lost: the newer words, because they can recited, become more important than the older idea. But what is the idea? Does increased liberty lead necessarily to an emphasis on the importance of reason? Does the power of reason lead necessarily to improvements in justice, fairness, tolerance, and other enlightenment goals? One can but hope – as Pascal said, “... this is the principle of morality.”

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