At a time when immigration and indeed the very nature of America’s heritage is being re-examined, it is worth considering the history of one of America’s greatest icons: the Statue of Liberty.

Images of the statue are so ubiquitous that it is tempting to take her for granted. But Lady Liberty, as we now call her, is quite a radical creation, both visually and conceptually. She does not carry the traditional American nationalist symbols of the flag and the eagle, instead holding the Declaration of Independence, a representation of liberty and human rights.

The statue, which took its place in New York Harbor in 1886, is also a literal monument to European-American cooperation. The work was funded by both American and French donations, designed by the Alsatian Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and conceived by his collaborator Édouard de Laboulaye. It was a private initiative, and Grover Cleveland, then governor of New York, opposed a legislative proposal to help pay for the statue.

So she is a useful reminder that global cooperation is sometimes more powerful than local politics. Another improbability is the statue’s gender. It was erected at a time when no woman in the U.S. had the right to vote in federal elections. Thus was the world’s largest statue a glaring reflection of American hypocrisy.

Cleveland described the statue as “keeping watch and ward before the gates of America.” This is not exactly warm rhetoric — the plaque with Emma Lazarus’ poem welcoming the “huddled masses” to America was not added until 1903 — and although Cleveland supported free trade, he opposed Chinese immigrants, as he regarded them as unable to assimilate. The statue was never about fully open borders.

We Americans tend to think of the statue as reflecting the glories of our national ideals, but that’s not necessarily the case. In her forthcoming “Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty,” Francesca Lidia Viano points out that you might take the torch and aggressive stance of the statue as a warning to people to go back home or as a declaration that the U.S. itself needs more light. Her valuable book (on which I am relying for much of the history in this column) also notes that the statue represented an expected “spiritual initiation to liberty” before crossing the border, and was seen as such at the time. The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians all regarded border crossing as an important ritual act, associated with “great spiritual changes.” The Statue of Liberty promoted a transformational and indeed partly mystical interpretation of assimilation.

There are other interpretations of the statue’s purported message based on the details of its design. You plausibly can read the statue as a Masonic icon; an homage to the family coat of arms of Bartholdi the sculptor; a harkening back to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; a celebration of Orientalism, Orpheus and Samothracian civilization; and as a monument to the dead of the Revolutionary War. The statue also contained design clues celebrating the now-French city of Colmar (home base for Bartholdi) and threatening revenge against the Germans for taking Colmar in 1871 from the Franco-Prussian war.

The statue also had an Egyptian past, as an earlier version of the design had been planned to adorn the Suez Canal. For a while Bartholdi thought one statue could be placed in each location, helping to spiritually unify East and West.

Overall, the idea of liberty itself has some mystical foundations and also is connected to the obscure and to the esoteric. For all the scientific and engineering ingenuity behind the statue and its transport, it’s not the straightforward rationalists who conceived of its splendid creation.

Moreover, each generation tends to reinvent the statue for its own purposes. In 2011, the Postal Service issued a stamp based on the statue, but in fact it used the facsimile of the statue found in Las Vegas. The sculptor of the Las Vegas version sued and won a judgment of some $3.5 million from the Postal Service. He claimed that his version was “sexier” and that he modeled the face of his Lady Liberty not on the great monuments of antiquity, but rather on his mother-in-law.

If you are upset, as I am, that today’s America is not properly honoring the traditions of the Statue of Liberty, then it may be worthwhile to look to the culture to understand why.


Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”