Statue of Liberty

Janet Napolitano reviews "Liberty's Torch" by Elizabeth Mitchell (TIMOTHY CLARY / AFP/Getty Images / July 4, 2013)

Frederic Auguste Bartholdi is an all-but-forgotten figure in American history. He was, however, responsible for one of the most enduring symbols of the United States: the Statue of Liberty. A Frenchman from Alsace, he conceived, designed, sold and persisted until Liberty stood on Bedloe's Island in New York Harbor. How this icon came to be is the fascinating subject of Elizabeth Mitchell's new book, "Liberty's Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty."

An entire book about the creation of a statue runs the risk of being a terrible bore. Yet Mitchell uses Liberty to reveal a pantheon of historic figures, including novelist Victor Hugo, engineer Gustave Eiffel and newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. The drama — or "great adventure," to borrow from the subtitle — runs from the Pyramids of Egypt to the backrooms of Congress. Events such as the 1871 Siege of Paris are prominent.

The power of Mitchell's narrative is that it comes washed in irony. We recognize Liberty now as a beacon of hope and opportunity for a nation of immigrants. At the time, though, people could not see that — nor did they even imagine it. Instead, the construction of the statue was born of one man's desire to erect a grand monument: a statue for the purpose of building a statue.

For this reason, perhaps, "Liberty's Torch" relies on Bartholdi as the connecting thread. Raised by his mother, Charlotte, he went to Paris for an education in the arts. This ultimately led to a commission to travel to Egypt to make "photographic reproduction[s] of the principal monuments." On the boat, Bartholdi met and began a lifelong relationship with Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who would build the Suez Canal. Maybe it was this friendship, or maybe it was seeing Egypt's huge monuments, but ultimately the trip inspired Bartholdi's dream to create the largest statue ever built.

Failure to bring this to fruition in Egypt, followed by his exile from Paris because of bloody political unrest, led Bartholdi to sail to America. Later, he claimed to have read Hugo's poetry on the journey across the Atlantic, finding inspiration in this verse:

Arise, you who sleep! – For he who follows me,

who sends me first,

This is the angel Liberty, this is the giant light!

In truth, Bartholdi was probably inspired as much by finances as by anything else; he needed commissions. Liberty was first pitched as a monument to capitalism, then as a beacon or signal station, and finally as a sign of French-American friendship. Committees were formed on both sides of the Atlantic to raise the needed funds. Indeed, the fund-raising tactics connected with Liberty's construction occupy much of Mitchell's book.

To launch his project, Bartholdi decided to build just one part of the proposed statue and exhibit it for the ticket sales and the publicity. He chose the torch and the hand and had them made for the U.S. centennial exhibition in Philadelphia.

By itself, the colossal hand seemed almost macabre, leading the New York Times to express doubts about the entire project. Bartholdi then suggested leaving the statue in Philadelphia. Magically, New Yorkers' doubts disappeared. The hand and the torch, with the wrist reaching "the tops of the trees and rooftops," would rest in Madison Square Park from 1877 until 1886, when Liberty's body finally arrived.

The intervening nine years were filled with trials and disappointments. The statue's chief engineer died without a design for how Liberty would stand upright. Bedloe's Island was the chosen site, with Liberty as its lighthouse — yet the necessary electricity was missing. The project almost went bankrupt several times. Raising money for the pedestal, which was America's responsibility, presented a particular challenge until Pulitzer, the frenetic publisher of the New York World, came to the rescue by encouraging donations with the promise of free publicity for the donors.

Mitchell's description of Liberty's official dedication, on Oct. 28, 1886, is extensive and colorful. First, Congress had to appropriate money for the inaugural festivities. The machinations of passing that simple bill are depressingly reminiscent of today's Congress. The statue itself needed to be assembled like a huge jigsaw puzzle; its pieces had lain in 220 crates strewn on Bedloe's Island for 16 months. And the weather was terrible.

Still, thousands of people came "by train, ferryboat or horsecar." A huge parade marched down Fifth Avenue. Workers on Wall Street threw out masses of paper, creating the world's first ticker-tape parade. Bands played and bells tolled. The unveiling itself was marred only by Bartholdi, who, mishearing a cue, dropped the drapery too early.

It didn't matter. Liberty now stood, proud and tall.

We still care about Liberty today because she stands for an ideal. Nineteenth century America was a land of inventiveness and ambition. Great achievements — the transcontinental railroad, the telephone, the Brooklyn Bridge — transformed day-to-day life, boosted morale and gave a sense of excitement about the future. A young exile on a boat from Paris could conceive the world's largest statue, and then make it happen.

One wonders whether we have lost the optimism of that time. While huge social problems and inequalities of wealth existed, there was also a national sense of positive movement, of opportunity. Liberty was about hope.

We must continue to reach out to Liberty, even in a time of cynicism and small ideas. She moves us in ways many works of art do not. By explaining Liberty's tortured history and resurrecting Bartholdi's indomitable spirit, Mitchell has done a great service. This is narrative history, well told. It is history that connects us to our past and — hopefully — to our future.

Napolitano is president of the University of California.

Liberty's Torch
The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty

Elizabeth Mitchell
Atlantic Monthly Press: 384 pp., $27