Liberty’s Light

—Robert Camunas

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.” —Matthew 5: 14-15

By 1876, the United States of America had captured the attention of the world. Though it had existed as its own nation for one hundred years, a laughably short period of time for European nations who had histories that stretched back for centuries, The United States had already fended off the might of the world’s greatest military force, twice, to defend its independence. Our Revolution and experiment in democracy helped to inspire France, an American ally during the Revolution, to rebel against their own monarchy. And when a portion of the country rebelled because they thought the federal government would impede on their supposed rights to impede on the rights of others, The U.S. ended the rebellion and literally pulled itself back together. The United States showed the world it would not be weakened by division.

The American Civil War had only been over for eleven years and a day by the time the United States hosted the 1876 World’s Fair. The Centennial International Exhibition, as the Fair was known, was set during the Reconstruction Era—a period of time where the former rebel states were treated more like an occupied enemy country than states of the Union. This was to ensure the South did not deny African Americans their rights, newly protected by amendments to the Constitution of the United States. For a while it worked, and many African Americans were even voted into office in the South. To the attendants at the World’s Fair, it must have seemed like America was moving towards a new age of freedom after a time of strife and hardship.

As the name implies, the World’s Fair was host to countries from all over the world, and each of these countries brought the greatest wonders they had to offer to be displayed at the Centennial Exhibition. After the abolition of slavery within the United States, no object was more fitting than France’s “gift” to America. The gift arrived in August when the World’s Fair was closer to its closing date on November 10th than its opening date on May 10th, so it was not displayed in The Fair’s catalog, and many reports misnamed it. Some called it the “Colossal Arm” or the “Bartholdi Electric Light,” but in truth it was a piece of a larger statue named “La Liberté éclairant le monde,” which translates into “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Only the arm and torch were displayed at the Centennial International Exhibition, but today the completed statue is more familiar as The Statue of Liberty.

The Statue of Liberty’s torch was on display at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Visitors paid .25¢ to walk to the top of the torch and view The Fair. The money was used to fund the building of the statue’s pedestal. (Image from 1876 stereopticon photo.)
The Statue of Liberty’s torch was on display at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Visitors paid .25¢ to walk to the top of the torch and view The Fair. The money was used to fund the building of the statue’s pedestal. (Image from 1876 stereopticon photo.)

The giant copper torch was held high above the heads of the fair-goers. Many visitors beheld the sun’s reflection shining brightly off its polished flames. One can only imagine the sense of awe such a sight inspired, the patriotic pride it produced. Guests were permitted to climb up to the torch’s balcony, and from Liberty’s loft they looked upon the rest of the fair below them. The piece of The Statue of Liberty provided more than a beautiful view; by looking down at the wonders displayed at The Fair, visitors were offered a glimpse of the feats The United States was capable of and the bright future that awaited the young nation.

The Statue of Liberty is one of The U.S.’s souvenirs of The Centennial International Exhibition, and was even more expensive than the overpriced souvenirs modeled after it that are sold in New York City today. The people of France paid for most of the $250,000 it took to build their gift to The U.S., but more than $100,000 to build the pedestal for the statue was collected from the American people in fundraisers. The famous sonnet “The New Colossus” was written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus for one of these fundraisers, and today a plaque of the poem is mounted inside the pedestal itself. The well-known lines, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” perfectly captures the message of The Statue of Liberty and the spirit of the so-called “American Dream.”

The United States presented itself as the land of opportunity, where anyone willing to put in the work could become great. The broken chains at the feet of Liberty reminded everyone of how America fought off the tyranny of monarchy and ended the oppression of slavery. The torch was the shining light of liberty and democracy meant to be an example to the world as we were to France. Immigrants would be welcomed with open arms and could become Americans themselves to have their share of The Dream. There would be liberty and justice for all, not just liberty and justice for those who had been born American citizens. After all, America itself was a nation of immigrants.

Ultimately, that message proved to be an optimistic lie. It was a siren’s song luring in ocean travelers with promises of acceptance and opportunity, but they were greeted by a land of xenophobia. When immigrants started to pour into the country, Americans were warned they were being invaded again, but this time the foreigners were coming for jobs instead of lives and freedom. They were, of course, our jobs. Fearmongers styled themselves as patriotic as Paul Revere, and it was their duty to spread the message: “The Irish are coming, the Irish are coming!” Instead of muskets, the Americans prepared signs that said “Irish need not apply.”

This rash of xenophobia applied to more than just the Irish, of course. On the other side of the country, Chinese immigrants had crossed The Pacific to join the excitement of the California Gold Rush. Americans (who had only had to cross a continent instead of an ocean to reach the much-desired gold) believed they were more entitled to the unclaimed precious metal. Many of the Chinese were forcibly removed from the mines, and immigrants had to toil away constructing the railroads in conditions that were hardly better than slavery.

Since the Reformation Era ended about a year after the 1876 World’s Fair, racists reclaimed The South as soon as they were able. By 1890, just seven short years after Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus,” the first of The Jim Crow laws were passed to limit the rights of African Americans. This followed the prohibition of Chinese laborers entering the country when the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed in 1882, a mere six years after the Centennial Exhibition, and the year before “The New Colossus was penned. The bright future visitors saw in the flames of Liberty’s torch during the Centennial International Exhibition was already reduced to ash and embers.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s breathed new life into those dying embers, but even today, Americans still have no lack of outsiders to fear. The terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 turned America’s attention towards The Middle East, and the media turned America’s fears towards Muslims. Today there are millions of refugees from Syria fleeing for their lives due to a horrific civil war, but they have nowhere to stay. There is no benevolent colossus on their side of the ocean or ours welcoming them with open arms, no Mother of Exiles calling out for them as Lazarus’ poem declares. Liberty’s torch was supposed to be a shining example the rest of the world could look towards and follow, but what kind of example is The United States sending when one of the most popular candidates for the presidency is running on the platform of building a giant wall to keep out foreigners—and reinforcing the idea that said foreigners will pay for the wall?

The paranoia and xenophobia only reached a new peak after a terrorist attack on France in November 13th, 2015. The tragedy claimed the lives of 130 people and injured hundreds more. In the aftermath of the attack on our valued ally, many American politicians have made statements implying or going as far as explicitly stating that all Muslims were a threat to western civilization. From their point of view, a War on Terror and a War on Islam are the same thing. Any one of the refugees seeking safety could be a terrorist, so it’s better to turn them all away than to risk an incident on American soil. Better them than us. This line of thought led to the suggestion that all Muslims be prohibited from entering the country. Such a law would be America’s most xenophobic piece of legislation since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066—the start of the Japanese Internment Camps of WWII on American soil.

The War on Terror and the War on Drugs have both demonstrated America’s adoration of war and paranoia towards foreigners. The present day United States of America has not inherited the new colossus, they have inherited the old one “with conquering limbs astride from land to land.” When other nations look towards The United States, they do not see a beacon of freedom and opportunity. Instead, America is famous for having the world’s largest military budget—larger than the next top ten nations combined.

The United States of America has only attracted more attention to itself since the World’s Fair of 1876, but it is not the shining example of liberty depicted by The Statue of Liberty, nor the famous poem describing it. Somewhere along the line, our lofty ideals were replaced with selfish paranoia and xenophobia. The United States cannot simultaneously pride itself for being a land of opportunity and a “melting pot” of the world while it holds a prejudiced view of foreigners and immigrants at the same time.

To be fair, not all Americans share this exaggerated fear of foreigners, and those who do are far louder about it than they should be. Even so, the ones who shout the loudest are often the ones who are heard, and more reasonable discussion often gets drowned out by the cacophony of fearmongering that floods the media. The perceptions of American people are influenced by this, and the perception of The U.S. by other countries is also altered. The United States of America holds considerable influence in world affairs, but the perception of Americans as a society will affect the way other nations treat the United States. The eyes of the world are on The United States, even more so than they were during the 1876 World’s Fair, and we have not lived up to the ideals that are supposedly inseparable from the very concept of The United States as a nation.

At times like these, The Statue of Liberty exists almost as a symbol of irony. America has not lived up to the values it was founded on, and Lady Liberty stares across the Atlantic with her back to the United States in shame. Her polished copper exterior has turned to its iconic yet somewhat sickly pale green color over the years, as tarnished as the American Dream. In popular films such as The Planet of the Apes, the Statue of Liberty is in ruins and represents the ultimate failure of American ideals.

Even with that in mind, there is still hope to live up to the dreams that inspired the statue’s creation. The Statue of Liberty still stands with her torch raised high as a monument to the ideals The United States of America was built upon. It has the potential to be a reminder to every American—a reminder that all mankind has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that The United States of America was founded as a place where those rights should be recognized without fear.