Lady Liberty: The Sovereignty Goddess of the USA Part 1

by JoHarrington

'Liberty Enlightening the World' is the official title of this iconic American landmark. But how much do you know of the history and legends behind the Statue of Liberty?

The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to the people of the United States of America.

Conceived during the centenary celebrations of the American Declaration of Independence, and dedicated in 1886, Liberty has towered over New York Harbor ever since. She is an icon of Freedom and a personification of the country itself.

In this way, Lady Liberty can be seen as the Sovereignty Goddess of the USA. It's a blood-thirsty role of abundance and valor, which She knows well from Her former (plus current and future) aspect as the Roman deity Libertas.

But that Goddess has divine roots that reach back even further.

Prepare to view the Statue of Liberty through the (sometimes controversial) lens of Her Pagan past, then learn precisely whose icon stands upon that famous pedestal.

This Wizzle is dedicated to one of my favorite American ladies - Ember Hilvers, who recently made the mistake of asking me about Liberty's Pagan origin. My answer is this new colossal article in three parts.

The Statue of Liberty as a Pagan Goddess

In a country whose motto became 'one nation under God', you don't expect Paganism to be resplendent in its national icons. But there She is.

The Statue of Liberty stands on a pedestal on Liberty Island, in the middle of New York Harbor. But Her presence stretches further than that.

All across the world, a reference to Her acts as short-hand for the USA itself. A global population recognizes Her imagery as the embodiment of America - the place, its people and an ethos too.

She speaks of freedom, liberty and the opportunity to be whatever you wish to be. Forging a future there for the taking - a meritocracy wrapped up in the American Dream.

Lady Liberty symbolizes all of that; an icon for the nation where She took that form.

But She had existed before, in the myths, legends, ideologies and hopes of other people and other fledgling nations. In some She was genuinely a divine force, not merely a figurehead but an actual Pagan Goddess.

We trip those words together off our tongue - the statue of Liberty - without often pausing to examine precisely what we just said. It is a statue. And the statue depicts a Lady named Liberty. So who was/is Liberty?

The majority of Americans might answer that Liberty is a concept; an intangible idea described metaphorically as a woman lighting the way forward. For them the question should be 'what is liberty?', not 'who?'

But they are neither historians nor Pagans, nor the mind that conceived of the statue, nor the artist who created it.  For them, the statue is Libertas, a Goddess whose antiquity reaches back to ancient Rome, and for whom Liberty is just Her name translated into English, still attached to the ideals that She once governed and inspired.

Replicas of the Statue of Liberty

The patent for souvenir statues of Lady Liberty was taken out before she was even built. Produced since the 1870s, here are some of today's better versions.

The Revolutionary Lady Liberty - Goddess of Freedom

Libertas had served well those forging a brand new France. Now its artist wished to enshrine the same sentiments on the other side of the Atlantic.

Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi knew precisely who he was sculpting. Libertas had been used a dozen times or more in the recent artistic traditions of his native France.

In Her aspect as Marianne, the personification of Revolutionary France, the iconography had been even more widespread.

If Bartholdi had somehow missed those references - which he didn't - he would have known anyway. He was explicitly told by his good friend Édouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, an intellectual who came up with the idea behind the Statue of Liberty's design.

Both Bartholdi and Laboulaye were revolutionaries, living during the reign of Napoleon III.

It was at a dinner party held for fellow subversives in 1865 that Laboulaye first mentioned his idea for a Statue of Liberty. Bartholdi was there, he offered (or was asked, depending upon your source) to construct it.


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The fact was that neither man particularly had America in mind at this point. Their colossal statue was going to stand in France. It was meant to be a slap in the face to their own dictator.

Unfortunately for them, Napoleon III's administration was wise to precisely what Libertas represented - historically AND contemporary - and refused to give them planning permission to erect it as a permanent monument there. Laboulaye was hoping that the French people would force the issue, but in the generations after the Terror, the people had lost the taste for more revolution.

But Laboulaye's mind was aflame with this idea and he was determined to see his Libertas statue made. Of course there were politics involved.

Iconoclasm - the act of tearing down or re-purposing art to make a point - had been a huge feature of the French Revolution. Statues of monarchs, erected in the first place to demonstrate the dominance of those rulers, were toppled by sheer manpower. Crowds of people with ropes utterly determined to make the icon go away.

An original statue of Libertas, quite crudely crafted out of clay, was set up during the Terror upon the pedestal left by a pulled down regal monument. It stood in the Place de la Révolution, overlooking the guillotine, inspiring Madame Roland (en route to her own execution) to utter her famous words, 'O Liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!' (Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!)

Libertas as Reason

Les Deesses

As the unnamed Goddess of Reason, Libertas was used in the reconsecration of Notre Dame. Previously devoted to Mother Mary, that famous Parisian cathedral became the scene of a ceremony transferring the building's allegiance to Reason. A clay statue was placed there in the chancel, where once Mary had been.

Elsewhere in the country, portable versions - not unlike scarecrows in construction, though not so ragged - were taken from village to village, town to town, in each place being used to reconsecrate the churches and shrines to Libertas. Though here She was alternatively called Marianne or Reason.

There's an argument to be made that Marianne was a lovely sleight of hand by people only outwardly denouncing their Catholicism. After all, Marion/Marianne is only another name for Mary. Nevertheless, those carrying the icon thought they were doing it for Libertas, and an ideological icon, not a Goddess, at that. 

Then there was the canvas art, like the ones below, which all depict Libertas, either directly, or as Reason or Marianne. She's still being used in this way today in France, appealing to the hearts, minds and passions of the ordinary French people.

Goddess of the People - the Statue of Libertas in Egypt

For most of the second half of the 1860s, the Statue of Liberty was going to be erected not in the USA but in Egypt.

Laboulaye thought that if the common and downtrodden could only see something of Libertas's colossal magnitude, they would rise up again, wherever they were.

When he could get no joy from persuading people en masse to both fund and force the erection of his statue in France, he looked elsewhere.

Round two was Egypt, where the Suez Canal was under construction.

Laboulaye wanted his colossal Statue of Liberty to stand there instead, where it would gain a lot of publicity both due to the potential fame of the canal and the numbers of people passing through it.

For a while, it seemed like it would happen and Bartholdi immediately began making sketches based upon Laboulaye's direction. He even visited in 1865 with blueprints.

From those we know that the Suez Statue of Libertas was envisaged as wearing a toga and holding aloft a light. She would double as a lighthouse (as She did in the earliest decades of Her tenure in New York Harbor). But Egypt's Libertas statue fell through.

There are two versions explaining why:

The first is that Egypt didn't have the money to pay for it. There's plenty of evidence for this to be the case, as Egypt was embroiled in a series of wars at the time, which proved costly enough to bring the country to the point of bankruptcy. Its ruler, Isma'il Pasha, ended up selling Egypt's shares in the Suez Canal to the British, in order to raise enough funds to keep the nation solvent.

The second is that Isma'il Pasha visited Britain in 1869 and he was told precisely who Libertas was and what She represented. The British had no love for Libertas. They were afraid their own common people would have a revolution! But they'd also received most of the aristocratic refugees from France during the Terror, so heard first-hand the stories about that icon.

Isma'il Pasha was told that Libertas was a Goddess who presided over rivers of blood. He turned down Her statue, because he didn't want those deaths to be Egyptian.

Laboulaye rushed back to Egypt with compromises. He would make Libertas an Egyptian lady. He'd scrap the toga in favor of an outfit worn by the Egyptian working classes.  No. Laboulaye suggested that it could be a statue of Isis instead. Pasha wasn't fooled. The Frenchman might call his statue Isis all he liked, but what would turn up to be constructed alongside his canal would be Libertas.

Despondent after finally admitting failure, Laboulaye went home. It seemed his colossal Libertas idea was sunk.

The Story of the Statue of Liberty History Books

The Statue of Libertas at the Suez Canal would have looked pretty much EXACTLY like this. The men behind it used the same blueprints for Lady Liberty!

The Statue of Liberty - France's Gift to the USA

Prominent Americans didn't want it, and working class French people wanted to keep it. Nevertheless Lady Liberty left for New York Harbor.

Just a handful of years later came an opportunity for Laboulaye to resurrect his vision. An anniversary of something very close to France's own revolution, the centenary of the American Revolutionary War. 

And France's own government was seeking ideas for a gift between their nation and the USA to mark it.

Laboulaye was soon in there with his proposal for a gift, its name Anglicized to factor in the English speaking Americans. 

How about a Statue of Liberty?

By now, Napoleon's administration had gone in the carnage of the Franco-Prussian War and in its place was the Third Republic, which was much more open to the idea of Libertas statues. They went for it, and the Americans couldn't exactly turn it down, when it was a gift.

They wanted to. Deputations of vicars and priests besieged House representatives about the undesirability of a Pagan Goddess on US soil.  J.P. Morgan led a consortium of wealthy and corporate classes, lobbying with the message that the Statue of Liberty would inspire unrest amongst American lower classes.

Questions were asked in Congress, but the conclusion was soon reached that turning Liberty down would be political poison. It would severely harm diplomatic relations with France. The US Ambassador to France Levi Parsons Morton was directed to formally accept the present of one colossal Statue of Liberty, which he did so on July 4th, 1884.

Phase two of the American resistance would delay progress on the statue immensely. Morgan et al hoped indefinitely.

While the Statue of Liberty itself was being paid for via public subscription from the people of France, the USA would have to fund its pedestal. Bartholdi wanted one, as Liberty's aspect on Bedloe Island (now renamed Liberty Island) would allow for a better view of Her from the harbor, if only She was further elevated.

It was widely anticipated that the upper echelons of US society would stump up the cash. But J.P. Morgan and chums had already stated their position on the subject. No, no, and again no. The 1% weren't interested in Libertas nor anything She stood for.

That other great source of fund-raising in America - collections amongst church congregations - was also out. Their clerics were adamant in their outrage against Pagan Goddesses. Liberty was preached against as if She was Satan Himself.

Faced with potential diplomatic embarrassment - the US having to tell France that they were too strapped for money to accept their gift - a governmental committee was set up to find ways to elicit donations towards the pedestal.

It found an ally in Joseph Pulitzer, the American journalist whose name would later be immortalized in the Pulitzer Prize for outstanding journalism. He wrote dozens of widely read editorials, which helped turn enough public sentiment towards the construction that the pedestal could be built.

Ordinary Americans (the 99% if you like) were responsible for funding Liberty, as was right and proper given her allegorical history.

Meanwhile, the French public were watching the Statue of Liberty being built in Paris. With the vision in front of them, funded from their own collective pockets, there was a surge of enthusiasm for the project. The authorities were suddenly swamped with requests to keep Libertas's statue in France.

But the Third Republic government couldn't do that. It had already been offered to the USA. Withdrawing it would cause diplomatic offense.

In short, both US and French governments would have secretly breathed a huge sigh of relief, if the Statue of Liberty could stay in Paris. But neither could mention it to the other for fear of harming international relations!

Documentaries about the Statue of Liberty

Delve even further into the history, intrigue, protests and politics that led to the iconic presence of Lady Liberty in the USA.

Lady Liberty as a Pagan Goddess

Libertas was undoubtedly a deity (whom we'll come back to in the final part of this trilogy), while the Gallic heart of the French would have seen the ancient Goddess of Sovereignty in Marianne.

Discover more about Her, and how Her aspect transferred to Lady Liberty for the USA, in part two.

Lady Liberty is often depicted as representing the USA itself. She is its iconic, ideological Mother. She is its Sovereign Goddess. But what does that actually mean?

Statue of Liberty Costumes

She is Liberty... The Goddess Libertas - in the French Revoluntary and American Dream sense - represents the people. You ARE Liberty.

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Updated: 05/28/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 05/24/2014

Awww! Thank you so much! <3

cmoneyspinner on 05/22/2014

I've got plans for these articles. I'm just trying to figure out the best way to showcase them.

Like I always say: "If you can't create your own original good stuff to share, go flaunt and brag about somebody else stuff." You can quote me on that. :)

JoHarrington on 05/22/2014

I'm glad that you enjoyed the articles on Liberty. :)

Now Lady Justice is a fascinating figure. There's at least four different goddess merged together to complete Her modern aspect, and that's with stripping away each of those Ladies' subsequent manifestations. Let it settle in my head a bit, then you never know. It might turn into an article.

Ms Hilvers is a credit to your country, and floating around here somewhere too.

cmoneyspinner on 05/20/2014

I don't know this Ms. Hilvers, but if she's one of your favorite ladies she must be OK. You picked my favorite lady to write about and I'm glad you spread it out over a 3-part article. Do you plan to do a series about Lady Justice? She's another one of my favorite ladies. I'll bet if you did Wizzles about her, you would do her justice. :)

JoHarrington on 05/19/2014

Unless you're a contender to be ruler of a nation, the worst Sovereignty can really do is leave. Though that's bad enough, if the leaving means that you're about to be invaded. Or the crops will fail etc. As long as you get on well with the conquerors and be prepared to give up your entire culture, things should work out nice.

Ember on 05/19/2014

LOL I wouldn't call them insights persay, so much as a change from hearing the word sovereignty and thinking of it as in the definition of the word to the idea of what it means in a Pagan (or Celtic?) sense. I guess I think of scary but not really (>.>as my dream the other night might prove >.>) Goddesses. You honestly don't want to know what I actually think. :| I'll try to figure out how to explain it. In the simplest sense, you don't want to be on her bad side. I'm going to leave it at: it's kind of complicated.

JoHarrington on 05/19/2014

Ah! Yes, I remember that conversation too. I'll add Argante to the list of subjects for articles.

What insights have you gained regarding Sovereignty? It's always interesting to hear different people's takes on such things.

And yes! The OWS really could have run with this. I thought about that as I was writing this, but it didn't occur to me at the time it was all happening in Liberty Plaza. Then again, the name says it all. So perhaps they did pick up on it, but kept it subtle.

Ember on 05/19/2014

Haha, when you first said something, I was thinking it was going to be a piece on the Lady of the Lake. I am definitely not disappointed though! And I definitely do remember asking about this (I was kind of like 'OOOH! This story!' when I saw it :D) and I remember your response at the time, as well. But from that shorter telling I hadn't picked up on the people's reaction toward the statue, so much as just what she represented, which I do find interesting. And, anyways, now I have a lot more context for the idea of a Sovereignty Goddess than when I was first asking. Changes my understanding in that sense, too.

Actually, I kind of love that governments/leading bodies of sorts were terrified that she represented an inspiration to people rebelling. I wish the OWS movement had picked up on that one, (unless they did and I just totally missed it which is plausible), I love how fitting it is, considering. :D

JoHarrington on 05/19/2014

When you Tweeted to me this afternoon that you knew what was coming and were looking forward to it, I looked at my nearly completed trilogy and bit my lip somewhat. You were clearly expecting something and you didn't know I was doing this. I worried you'd be disappointed! :)

I'm glad that the first part, at least, has captured your attention.

I was doing this on Saturday. Yesterday, I disappeared into Zazzle. Not quite so exciting. LOL

Ember on 05/19/2014

Also! I must say, whenever you randomly disappear for a few days but aren't on some sort of break, I usually take it to mean something has captured your interest and you're all wrapped up in it, and that the end result will eventually be an article, which I think tend to be some of your best! XD.

So I was waiting for that when you told me about this article this morning, and that was an exciting surprise! :D

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