“We packed her, we crated her, we shipped her, we unpacked her, and we’ll crate her up and ship her again, after she’s done here,” an executive from a shipping company that had, indeed, done all those things, was saying, proudly, efficiently, on Thursday morning. He was talking about the many-sequenced move of a nine-foot-tall bronze model of the Statue of Liberty, which had been created directly from Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s 1878 plaster cast and had stood nobly for a decade in Paris, at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, but which had just been brought over, after all that frenetic crating and shipping, to a site on Ellis Island. She will remain there for almost a week, outside the great immigration shed, before moving to a ten-year residence at the French Ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C. The little-sister model statue, still covered with a ceremonial veil at noon, had been, visitors were promised, aligned to stand in profile against the big-sister statue on Liberty Island—or Bedloe’s Island, as it was prosaically known in 1886, when she was first inaugurated.
From Ellis Island, though, there was something oddly diminutive about the hundred-and-fifty-one-foot-tall icon. “She looks small,” someone said, as someone always does when spying her from across the water. She does look small. A sad truth of modern times is that our colossi can never really be colossal. In ancient times, the Colossus of Rhodes really did tower over his world, or seemed to, as did, in the imaginary past, the Titan of Braavos, in “Game of Thrones”—not to mention the statue of Zeus, at Olympia, or the one of Athena Parthenos, in the Parthenon. Compared with their surroundings, they were all big people. But even big modern statues have long been dwarfed by the sheer height of the skyscrapers that surpass them in scale (always in our heads, and often in our eye line) and by the cumulative density of the cities that surround them. The helicopters that hover above the statue’s head suggest the power of modern technology to make the sky that is her limit no limit at all.
Yet, gazing at Liberty a couple of days before the Fourth of July, there is still something hugely moving about her, at any scale. The essential historical confusion that she presents to our understanding is that her proximity to Ellis Island quickly transformed her into a symbol of American immigration, which is not what she was intended to be. She became the “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” Lady, rather than the “Enlighten the World” Lady. As first imagined, in 1865, when the sculptor Bartholdi and the novelist and essayist Édouard Réne Lefèbvre de Laboulaye sat down at a (likely apocryphal) dinner, shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, the purpose of this first colossal statue since antiquity in the West was apparent: she was to be both a monument to the triumph of American democracy, rooted in the cause of abolition, and a kind of pledge object, promising the restoration of the French Republic, at a time when France was still under the corrupt and autocratic rule of the Second Empire. Laboulaye had in mind a monument to the end of slavery here and the rebirth of republicanism there. He succinctly summarized what Liberty was against in a prescient list: she was to celebrate a people who had “left behind royalty, nobility, the Church, centralization, permanent armies: privilege never came to them.” Inspired by a transatlantic light, France might leave them behind as well.
All this time later, it’s a mixed bag. Certainly, though free of kings, we are far from free of the Church, or the presence of clerics in everyday life, and God knows we have a more standing standing army. Privilege still does its thing, too. But then, even as the statue was being dedicated, in 1886, the limits of American liberty were plain: a boat filled with suffragists, furious at the idea that a giant replica of a free woman was being unveiled in a country in which women were not free to vote, circled the ceremony. A broken chain that sits at Liberty’s feet, to recognize her role as an image of abolition and the freedom of Black America, was mostly hidden from view, both actually—even today, so few know that it’s there—and symbolically.
The dreamers who made the statue had an abiding faith in freedom: they believed that liberty can be the solvent of all other ills. Free people would be prosperous and equal and compassionate. Perhaps sadly, in the past few years, our sense of what liberty alone can do has contracted. We know that liberty guarantees neither social solidarity nor economic equality. A lot of people will tell you that, in the absence of those good things, the liberty from priests and kings, and even the liberty to say what we want isn’t enough—that maybe it isn’t even liberty. Certainly, the faith, once so sure, that free markets would make free men and women has never looked more dubious. (China is providing an instance of how liberty can be squashed in Hong Kong, while a kind of capitalism prospers in Beijing.)
Yet Liberty still counts. This old lady, who is also perpetually young, has never looked more necessary. Indeed, when the little-sister statue was unveiled, a single thing took one’s breath away: compared with her august sister, she has a pinched, determined, furious face. She looks as furious as the suffragists of more than a century ago. This is, in part, a consequence of the rule that, in order for a statue’s facial expression to “carry” across a great distance, it needs to be strong stuff. Yet here the idea implicit in her expression—that the act of enlightening the world with liberty means setting it on fire, that letting freedom ring can mean letting freedom resound, loudly—seems fitting and pleasing and just.
One need be neither a pessimist nor a progressive, only a realist, to see that, for all our flaws and faults, the spirit of a Little Liberty is real. Even in the aftermath of the worst continuing assault on American democracy since the Civil War, we can still mostly say what we want, when we want, about what we want. This is, historically, so rare an achievement that of course we take it entirely for granted. We see the limits of the icon and not the radiance of the torch. The notion that our liberty is only partial, limited, and compromised is often insisted on, and by some of our most articulate and wisely attended talkers. But they get to say it. The statue, however small she can seem, still celebrates an idea so big that history can hardly contain it. You can still celebrate the Glorious Fourth gloriously if you think your own thought, write it down, and put it out there. Take a liberty. Feel free. A little goes a long way.