The Statue of Liberty Celebrates the End of Slavery

Justice inherited,

of shared prosperity and independence,

illumined by the Light of The Framers

and deaf of deadened consciousness of heart.


There are two aspects of a particular feature of the Statue of Liberty that reflect profoundly on the stated values of the United States.

The first was Frederick Douglass‘ 1852 speech – recognized as one of the finest speeches in history – which began, almost imperceptibly, by repeating the word “yours” and not “ours.” (“This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn.”) The speech ascended masterfully, rousing the conscience of the then-audience and, subsequently, the nation, to the cruelties and inhumanity of slavery:

“To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Even as Frederick Douglass charged institutions such as the American church as espousing hollow values, he defended the Constitution as a pathway to free the enslaved: “…the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them?” Douglass’ voice was a voice, among others, that would end slavery a little more than a decade later.

Secondly, in a forgotten aspect of history, the Statue of Liberty was originally commissioned and executed to celebrate the end of slavery – not simply to acknowledge and welcome immigrants to the United States.

Chains at the foot of Lady Liberty, courtesy of the National Park Service

The idea for Lady Liberty originated with Edouard de Laboulaye, a French jurist, poet and anti-slavery activist. He was an expert on the U.S. Constitution. At the conclusion of the American Civil War, he was “the president of a committee that raised and disbursed funds to newly freed slaves”, according to an article in the Washington Post. Laboulaye organized a meeting of French abolitionists in 1865, the intent of which was to talk about creating a “kind of commemorative gift that would recognize the importance of the liberation of the slaves”, so stated Edward Berenson, a New York University history professor. Berenson is the author of “The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story.”

An early prototype of the Statue has her right arm, torch in hand and in the position we are familiar with; however, originally, in her left hand were broken shackles.

In the final revision, Lady Liberty holds a tablet inscribed with July 4, 1776 in Roman numerals, but the shackles remain at her feet.

By the time the statue was unveiled on 28-Oct-1886, de Laboulave’s originally intended meaning had been lost.

The Post article said, “black newspapers railed against it as meaningless and hypocritical. By 1886, Reconstruction had been crushed, the Supreme Court had rolled back civil rights protections, and Jim Crow laws were tightening their grip.”

Every voice that calls for equality and justice – and supports those calls with action – is an influence in favor of what the Constitution’s Preamble says is the “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Use your voice.