Oct. 28, 2022

The Dedication of the Statue of Liberty

The Dedication of the Statue of Liberty

October 28, 1886: American President Grover Cleveland attends a grand ceremony in New York to dedicate the Statue of Liberty.


Cold Open

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon on September 5th, 1781 at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia - and the American Revolutionary War is underway.

A French gunner stands beside his cannon on the lower deck of his warship, waiting for the order to fire. He glances at the grim faces of the sailors around him. More than a dozen other gunners stand with tapers in their hands. Others stand at a safe distance, knowing the cannons will rock it back when they fire. A few young boys scurry along the deck carrying pouches of gunpowder.

When the gunner hears the order to fire, he places his taper against the cannon’s fuse.

A few seconds later the gun roars and back a couple of meters. The next few seconds are a cacophony of noise as other cannons fire and the deck fills with smoke, but the gun crew barely pauses before launching into action, pushing their cannon back into position, cleaning the barrel, and preparing a new shot.

The gunner winces as an enemy cannonball crashes into the other end of the deck, scattering the sailors who were unlucky enough to be in its way. But he cannot afford to be distracted. As the smoke clears from the first broadside, the gunner peers along the barrel and checks to make sure his cannon is aiming high. The British might be aiming at his gun deck, but he has orders to fire at the sails and rigging of the enemy ship.

When the gunner is satisfied with his aim, he lights the fuse, and the cannon fires again. This time, when the smoke clears, the gunner sees that the foremast of the enemy ship has been hit and is leaning at an angle. Already the enemy ship is slowing and beginning to list. He allows himself a satisfied smile. The first round in this naval battle in American waters has gone to the French.

The Battle of the Chesapeake left the French navy firmly in control of the bay and prevented the British from rescuing their encircled forces at the port city of Yorktown, paving the way for American colonial soldiers, and their French allies, to lay siege. Six weeks later, the British Army surrenders, effectively bringing the War of American Independence to an end. The colonial victory over the British is due, in no small part, to the special friendship between America and France that was forged during the Revolutionary War.

Nearly 100 years after the Battle of the Chesapeake, a French sculptor named Frederic Bartholdi sets out to commemorate that friendship by designing and building the colossal, and now iconic, Statue of Liberty that is dedicated on this day, October 28th, 1886.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is October 28th, 1886: The Dedication of the Statue of Liberty.

Act One

It’s June 21st, 1871 in New York Harbor, 15 years before the Statue of Liberty is dedicated.

Frederic Auguste Bartholdi stands on the open deck of a steamship on its way into the harbor. He takes in the majestic view around him. It’s the first trip the sculptor has ever made to the United States. And after 12 days on the rough Atlantic Ocean, he is eager to disembark and ready to get to work. Frederic is here to court America’s most prominent and powerful citizens and to win their support for a mammoth artistic endeavor.

For the past few years, Frederic has been possessed by a great passion: he already built a larger-than-life statue of a Napoleonic general in his native France, but it wasn’t big enough. So he tried to persuade the ruler of Egypt to let him erect a giant lighthouse at the entrance of the Suez Canal, but his proposal was politely declined. Frederic wasn’t deterred though, and he continued to look for opportunities to do something big. At a recent dinner party, he got into a discussion about France and the US, and the alliance they formed during the American Revolution. That conversation inspired him to attempt his biggest undertaking yet. Frederic wants to design and build a statue representing the principle of liberty. And he wants it to be a gift from the people of France to their friends in America.

As the steamship cruises closer to its dock, Frederic notices something in the distance: a small island rising from the busy waterway with a low, five-pointed fort on it. Every ship journeying to New York from France must pass this island at the end the voyage. And seeing it, Frederic smiles. He thinks he’s found the perfect location for his statue—and he hasn’t even set foot in the United States.

The moment he steps on dry land, Frederic gets right to work, searching for inspiration for his colossal statue. He travels the coast and sees the great cities of the east. He crosses the continent by rail to San Francisco and then back again. Along the way, he meets with potential backers including newspaper magnate Horace Greeley, veteran politician Charles Sumner, and religious leader Brigham Young. Then, finally, he heads back toward New York to meet with a very important person whose approval, and resources, could give his statue a big boost.

Not long after his return, Frederic waits in the parlor of a summer house in Long Branch, New Jersey. Soon, the door opens and Frederic stands to greet Ulysses S. Grant, the President of the United States. Grant invites Frederic to sit and tell him about this project.

As he takes his seat, Frederic points out the window to the ocean, where ships in the distance make their final approach to New York. He outlines the idea of his statue commemorating freedom and the special relationship between France and the United States. President Grant says he doesn’t think securing Frederic’s preferred site, the island in New York Harbor, will be a problem.

Feeling emboldened by Grant’s receptiveness, Frederic pushes forward. He says he wants to build a giant statue of the female Roman goddess of freedom: Liberty. He wants her to hold a torch aloft in her hand for all to see, and he calls his design, “Liberty enlightening the world.”

But Frederic needs more than the president’s approval. He needs the American government to commit to building a suitable pedestal for the statue. Hearing this, President Grant frowns and mutters about the cost. Frederic quickly adds that, in the spirit of their alliance, both countries must contribute. But that the beauty and majesty of the final product will be worth every dollar spent. But Grant is clear. The US government won’t be giving any money toward the building of a pedestal.

Frederic leaves the meeting with Grant's blessing, but he knows it means little if he can’t raise the money to pay for the pedestal. In the coming months and years, Frederic will do his best to raise the funds he needs, but the process will be harder than he ever imagined. Nobody has ever attempted to build such a massive freestanding statue before, and construction will be plagued with delays. Eventually, to turn his vision into reality, Frederic will need to turn to one of the most famous architects in French history.

Act Two

It’s July 1882 at a sculptor’s yard in the suburbs of Paris, four years before the dedication of the Statue of Liberty.

Gustave Eiffel, a French engineer, climbs a ladder inside the vast leg of the Statue of Liberty, still under construction. Bright summer sunshine lights his way from the giant opening where Lady Liberty’s waist will be when she’s finally finished. Gustave is deeply frustrated by the delays though. Still, he is hopeful that the press event he’s about to attend will accelerate the process.

As he steps on a platform halfway up the statue’s leg, he sees Frederic Auguste Bartholdi holding court at a lunch table filled with enamored newspaper reporters.

Two years ago, Frederic invited Gustave to take over as the Statue of Liberty’s chief engineer. Frederic was worried that the statue was not going to be able to hold its weight, especially when buffeted by the storms of the New York winter. Gustave enthusiastically set to work designing a clever solution using a technique he learned over the years as a bridge builder - an iron skeleton inside the statue to hold it up.

But Gustave's design will never be completed unless the statue is fully funded. So as he steps into the room and joins Frederic, Gustave turns on the charm. He wants to do his part to impress these reporters so they write about the magnificent statue being built in Paris. Gustave and Frederic can think of no better way to raise the profile of their colossal work of art - and raise the rest of the money they need to finish it.

Gustave sits down and listens as reporters fire questions at Frederic about the progress of the statue’s construction. When one reporter asks how such a tall statue stays standing, Frederic invites Gustave to answer.

Gustave points to the iron framework around them and explains how it ensures the statue does not collapse under its own weight. He picks up two small plates and stands them on end, balancing them against each other. He gives them a small nudge and they clatter back to the table. Then he stands them back up but with a teacup underneath to hold them up. Now when he nudges them, they remain standing. Gustave explains that his iron frame inside the statue does the same job as the teacup. The reporters nod, smile and scribble in their notebooks.

When the press conference is complete, the reporters scurry back to their offices. Frederic claps Gustave on the shoulder, congratulating him on a job well done. Gustave hopes a new wave of donations will come flooding in as a result of the press, and Frederic hopes so too. He says he will send the following day’s newspapers to the United States to spur donations for the pedestal fund there, too.

But across the Atlantic, in the statue’s intended home, progress on the Statue of Liberty pedestal has ground to a halt. Despite the innovative press luncheon in Liberty’s unfinished leg, Americans will continue to view their French gift with little enthusiasm, and the fund to finish the pedestal will remain elusive. Luckily for Frederic and Gustave, and for Lady Liberty, one New York newspaper magnate decides to get involved himself. 


It’s March 1885 in New York, three years after the reporters’ lunch in the Statue of Liberty.

Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World newspaper, leans forward in his chair and taps the keys of his typewriter. Soon, the words are flowing across the page as Pulitzer bemoans the disgrace his home city faces. The now-complete Statue of Liberty will soon arrive from France, but New Yorkers have nowhere to put it.

Progress in the US stalled almost as soon as Frederic returned to Paris to oversee the building of the statue. Many Americans resented the fact that the gift from the French people came with strings attached with the expensive condition of paying for and constructing its pedestal.

Fundraising drives were met with apathy from Americans who had spent the last few years being hounded for donations to pay for the Washington Monument. So soon after the pedestal’s cornerstone was laid, construction stopped.

Now, Pulitzer plans to get the builders back to work by launching a fundraising drive in the pages of his own New York World.

Pulitzer taps the keys of his typewriter, writing an encouragement to ordinary Americans to get involved. He makes a promise: every person who donates will have their name printed in the pages of the New York World, no matter how small the amount. Pulitzer completes his editorial, signing off with the words: “Let us hear from the people.” He pulls the page from the typewriter with a flourish and hands it to his assistant.

Soon enough, it's clear that Pulitzer’s campaign is working. Donations pour in from all across the country, large and small. A nine-year-old girl offers to auction her prize chickens and donate the winning bid. A kindergarten class from Iowa collects $1.35. A poker club sends $1.50 that has been skimmed off their winnings. And soon, the New York World proudly proclaims that its fundraiser has met its goal and has more than enough to see construction through to the end.

15 years after President Grant gave Frederic Bartholdi his blessing, but refused to give him any money, the problem of financing the statue and pedestal is finally over. Now, it will fall to another American president to dedicate the colossal statue and introduce Lady Liberty to the world.

Act Three

It’s a rainy afternoon of October 28th, 1886 in New York, one year after the New York World’s fundraising campaign ended.

Frederic Auguste Bartholdi leans forward, craning his neck taking in the spectacular view in gallery of the crown of the Statue of Liberty. He has a touch of vertigo—the statue is the world’s tallest man-made structure, after all—but Frederic pushes down any fear. He has an important role to play in today’s dedication ceremony and needs to pay attention to what’s happening below.

Frederic peers down to the ground and sees the wind blowing the scarves of the assembled dignitaries who sit in bleachers erected for the grand occasion. Ferryboats, steamers, and yachts bob up and down on the water of New York Harbor, many flying the Stars and Stripes. On land, he can just about make out people scurrying across the roofs of buildings on the harbor. But the wind blows raindrops into Frederic’s face, making it difficult to pick out much detail.

Then Frederic sees a figure on the ground look up and wave a handkerchief. It’s the signal Frederic has been waiting for. So he pulls a rope and looks down to see a giant French flag unfurling away from the statue’s face, unveiling Lady Liberty to the city of New York.

Then Frederic covers his ears. The cheers of the spectators are drowned out by the sound of every gun in the harbor firing a salute, while every boat sounds its whistles and horns.

Frederic then descends the spiral staircase inside the Statue of Liberty. His legs are burning by the time he reaches the last step. He walks stiffly to a speaker’s platform and arrives just in time to hear President Grover Cleveland offer his closing remarks.

Pride swells in Frederic’s chest as he listens to the President say: “We shall not forget that Liberty has made her home here, nor shall her chosen altar be neglected. Willing votaries will constantly keep alive its fires and these shall gleam upon the shores of our sister republic in the east.”

Frederic smiles and nods. He is glad that President Cleveland emphasized his original intention: that the Statue of Liberty represents the shared values of France and the United States, values that are still celebrated as Lady Liberty stands in New York Harbor today. A world-famous icon, the Statue of Liberty continues to symbolize freedom and independence, as she has done ever since the day of her dedication on October 28th, 1886.


Next onHistory Daily. October 31st, 1984: Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated by her bodyguards at her home in New Delhi.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.