Lady Liberty's Kickstarter Campaign of the 1880s

In 1885, the iconic symbol of America's liberty was in pieces, packaged away in wooden crates. The problem? There was no pedestal for the Statue of Liberty to stand on.

As we worked to pull together sources and craft the Emma Lazarus curriculum, I got to really dive deep into the chapters of Emma Lazarus’ life, the influences that shaped her written work and inspired her activism, and the story of how she came to write the now iconic poem, “The New Colossus.”

Many assume the poem was gifted with the Statue of Liberty by France, completely erasing Emma Lazarus from the story. In reality, only the statue, designed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, was a gift from the people of France to America. In 1885, it arrived in New York City’s harbor – there was no poem, and more problematic at the time, there was no pedestal for the statue to stand on.

Fundraising efforts began in the 1870’s, and Bartholdi traveled with the statue’s torch to Philadelphia in 1876 and later New York’s Madison Square Park in hopes of generating excitement and enthusiasm, but donations were only trickling in. When the statue itself reached New York, Americans had not managed to raise the funds necessary to construct a pedestal for the statue.  The only option was to keep the statue packaged in crates, hoping one day the money would be raised. 

Eventually, it wasn’t American millionaires that helped raise the full amount, but everyday ordinary people. Private citizens began organizing events and fundraisers to help raise the funds. Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World newspaper, took up the cause and appealed to his readers. He asked them to give whatever amount they could – no matter how small – and carried through on his promise to publish every single name in his newspaper. Thousands of people around the country began sending in donations, including a kindergarten class in Iowa, which raised $1.35. The campaign was an astounding success. In just five months, the Pedestal Fund had raised $101,091 - enough to cover the last $100,000 to complete the pedestal, with the leftover funds gifted to the sculptor. Over 120,000 people sent in donations, and a majority of the donations were less than a dollar.

Pulitzer’s Pedestal Fund was one of the first ever crowdsource fundraising campaigns. In an age of Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, it is easy to overlook this remarkable feat. Pulitzer printed in his newspaper that the Statue "is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaire of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America.”

One of the most important donations came from an art and literary auction in December of 1883, held at New York’s Academy of Design. Among the fine art, antiques, and manuscript that were featured, was a sonnet by Emma Lazarus.

In her obituary for Emma, her friend Constance Cary Harrison shared how she approached her friend to contribute a poem.

She wrote:

I may cite, in illustration, the circumstances under which were written the beautiful lines entitled The New Colossus … I begged Miss Lazarus to give me some verses appropriate to the occasion. She was at first inclined to rebel against writing anything “to order” as it were, … Think of that Goddess standing on her pedestal down yonder in the bay, and holding her torch out to those Russian refugees of yours you are so fond of visiting at Ward’s Island,” I suggested. She sped home – her dark eyes deepened – her cheek flushed – the time for merriment was passed – she said not a word more, then. … A day or two later, accompanied by a note of generous sympathy, came the poem below appended, which was welcomed as a treasure for the Portfolio….

The sonnet was purchased for $1,500, what today would be over $35,000. “The New Colossus” would become synonymous with the statue, and 20 years later, it would be emblazoned within the pedestal forever.

In doing my research, this has been one of my favorite stories we have uncovered. The fact that it was everyday ordinary people, from school children to poets, who were essential to helping Lady Liberty stand tall in New York’s harbor, is inspiring. It shows that each of us are capable of making a positive, lasting impact on our communities.


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