The last time I glimpsed the Statue of Liberty with my own eyes, it was a year after the World Trade Towers came down. I made this photograph with the Statue in the distance from the base of Battery Park. Well, I should clarify that. The last time I glimpsed the Statue of Liberty with my own eyes in this country, it was a year after the towers came down. I actually last glimpsed the Statue of Liberty with my own eyes a little over a year ago about four thousand miles away. The original Statue of Liberty which was officially called La Liberté Éclairant le Monde, which translates to Liberty Enlightening the World, was sculpted in 1870 is located today in le Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris.
Many people know that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to the United States in 1886 to celebrate the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. What fewer people know is that there are three more Lady Liberties, two in Paris and one in Maceió, a city just outside of Brazil. And one more bit of obscure information is that the enormous Statue of Liberty that currently stands in New York Harbor was fully constructed over ten years in Paris before being dismantled and packed in hundred of crates for her journey to America.
The original inspiration for the Statue of Liberty was actually to serve both the United States and France. In the mid nineteenth century, France was wrestling with the idea of returning to a monarchy and the Statue represented a more democratic vision that could focus the people of France on the idea that it should remain a republic nearly 100 years after the French Revolution of the 1790s.
Frédéric Bartholdi enlisted the engineering help of Gustave Eiffel, yes that Eiffel, to help design the huge copper sculpture after Bartholdi’s original 1870 design.
Today marks the first day since September 11th that the public will be allowed to climb up into the crown. However in 1878, thousands of Parisiens were given the first chance to climb into the crown, although the head of the Statue was temporarily installed on the ground.
I’ve spent the better part of the 4th of July Holiday reading books and continuing my research on the histories of the United States and France and how incredibly intertwined they are. Both counties would be very different today without the other.
I recently aquired a 1967 edition of Mon Cher Papa, Franklin and the Ladies of Paris by Claude-Anne Lopez, an expert on Ben Franklin’s time in Paris from 1777 to 1785. It had been a library book in Hopkinsville, Kentucky before finding it’s way into my hands. And in another odd coincidence, Hopkinsville is not far from Louisville, Kentucky which is named after King Louis XVI, who Ben Franklin met with at the Royal Château de Versailles during his 8 years in Paris to secure money, troops, ships and weapons from the French for the American Revolution. As he blended very well into the French culture, he even gambled at the Palace with Marie Antionette.
Franklin spent his time in Paris in Passy at 66 rue Raynouard, which is now part of Paris proper in the 16th Arrondissement on the Right Bank, a short walk away from the Eiffel Tower.
So why all this research on the French and American Revolutions and Ben Franklin, Louis XVI and Marie Antionette? It’s a bit of a long story. But in a nutshell, it all began during my travels to Paris during the last 15 years. Whenever I travel abroad I take it as my responsibility to be a good ambassador. I love learning about other cultures as well as myth-busting those of my own. And during the unpleasantness of the Bush Administration I found myself having to do a lot of explaining in Europe.
The more I examined the histories of France and the United States, I found, even more than I had suspected, that both countries have needed and have benefited by good relations in the last 250 years. Relations that had become a bit strained until very recently. Both of our current systems of government were born out of the time when Franklin was a guest of Louis XVI’s Court, during our and just preceding the French Revolution. It’s hard to imagine what the United States and France would look like today without the other.
Last February I was standing on what had been French soil a little more than 200 years ago in New Orleans, Louisiana. Airport signs there in English, French and Spanish, still bear this out.
The lightning rods installed on many of the historic buildings of Paris were originally put there by Ben Franklin himself when he was in his late 70s. I have looked down on his old neighborhood from the top of Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe.
There is a very compelling photographic story in this history and one I have been diligently working on for the last several years. It’s a bit like the thesis I never wrote. Until now. And that I will do it in both photographs and words.
So today as we celebrate the 4th of July, I give a grateful nod to Franklin and the French who helped make it possible. And in 11 days, I will also celebrate Bastille Day, which commemorates the French Revolution.
Vive la France, et vive les États-Unis!