Statue of Liberty Wears Chains and Shackles Honoring Freed Slaves

The LA Progressive ran a story in the spring of 2011 that began with a video of Sarah Palin being interviewed at Liberty Island. In it she is asked about the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, she responded:

“It is, of course, the symbol for Americans to be reminded of other countries because this was gifted us, of course by the French—other countries warning us to never make the mistakes that some of them had made.”

Paraphrased, Palin was saying that France gave the United States the statue to warn the U.S. not to commit the mistakes other countries  committed.
The problem with her response –American exceptionalism and word salad aside — is that it has no basis in fact. In other words, it is WRONG. Historians tell us that the Statue of Liberty represents the OPPOSITE of what Palin suggests. Instead of reminding the United States not to make mistakes made by other countries, the Statue of Liberty was given to the U.S. as a monument to acknowledge the end of one of its biggest mistakes  — slavery.

When we ran the story in 2011, we got lots of feedback from readers who were surprised to learn that our Statue of Liberty was in any way connected to American slavery. However, several of our readers did some checking on their own and commented that they couldn’t find information corroborating our story. Some mentioned that the U.S. National Park Service (the federal agency responsible for the Statue of Liberty) offered information on their site that did not line up with what we were reporting.

In 2011, the U.S. Park Service made no mention of the chains or the connection between the emancipation of the American slaves and the gift from France — the Statue of Liberty.  Even though the U.S. Parks Service was fully aware of the story, they did not mention it on their website or any of the pamphlets given to tourists when visiting Lady Liberty. But sometime between 2011 and 2014 the U.S. Parks Service made a dramatic change. Today, the National Park Service website tells the story of how the Statue of Liberty came to be in New York’s harbor and its relationship to slavery. Following is an abbreviated version.

Statue of Liberty Wears Chains and Shackles

The statue on the left is a copy of an early version of the statue with chains in hand. The one on the right is the way she appears today.

The Statue of Liberty that today sits on Liberty Island in New York harbor is known to have been the brainchild of noted Frenchmen and abolitionist Edouard de Laboulaye, a man so dedicated to the eradication of slavery that he co-founded the French Anti-Slavery Society. The idea for establishing a monument specifically to honor the emancipation of slaves in America was discussed between Laboulaye and Frederic Bartholdi, a French sculptor in 1865, the year the U.S. abolished slavery.

In addition to his abolition work, Laboulaye was also a U.S. Constitution expert. Although we cannot know this for sure, one can only imagine that the 1865 signing of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be very important to an abolitionist and likely fueled Laboulaye’s desire to have the monument built. So, in 1865 he shared this idea with Bartholdi, who later became the designer of the statue, working closely with Laboulaye to make Laboulaye’s vision a reality.

The connection between the Statue of Liberty and the abolition of slavery is one that has been denied for 125 years. Almost from the start of the project, the American financiers wanted no mention of slavery and for 125 yrs they got their wish.

Although Laboulaye and Batholdi had envisioned a statue holding broken chains and shackles (as shown in the image above on the left), the early financiers that funded the project did not want chains on the monument. It was the American backers who were most opposed to the notion that the statue should in anyway acknowledge slavery. Because the French, who were paying for the statue, were facing difficult economic times, Laboulaye and Bartholdi relied on Americans to pay for and build the pedestal where the statue would stand. This was an essential part of the monument. Without American financial backing, the project could not be completed, but the American financiers were adamant that Laboulaye lose the chains and shackles. One can only surmise that some of the backers may have made their fortunes directly or indirectly through slavery.

In her book, Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty, Yasmin Sabina Kahn explained that although Laboulaye came upon the idea and communicated it to Bartholdi in 1865, the political climate in France at the time and a lack of funding made it impossible to raise enough money to get the project off the ground for several years. Indeed, it took the sculptor years to raise the funds. According to Kahn, “Bartholdi’s original depiction of Lady Liberty had her holding broken chains in her left hand, with more broken chains and broken shackles at her feet. The chains were symbolic of the end of slavery in the United States.”

Statue of Liberty Wears Chains and Shackles

Feet of the Statue of Liberty with chains

In lectures and on speaking tours, noted professor Dr. Joy DeGruy, frequently talks about the chains that were part of the original renderings of the Statue of Liberty. DeGruy explains that Bartholdi intended the statue to represent democracy and to symbolize the end of all types of oppression. However, according to DeGruy, the American decision-makers of the day rebuffed Bartholdi for including the chains and shackles and insisted that he remove them. Bartholdi was adamant that they remain, although he eventually was forced to compromise because he didn’t want to risk losing the financial support that was making the project possible. Finally, he removed the chains from Lady Liberty’s hand, replacing them with a book.

But, what most people don’t know, even today, is that Bartholdi left the broken shackles and chains that were at her feet. These symbols of state-sponsored bondage, human chattel and the hypocrisy of American exceptionalism remain there on the Statue of Liberty as a permanent reminder of the slaves that contributed to the building of the United States.

Because the height of the pedestal built to support the statue makes it impossible to see the chains and shackles from the ground, most people visiting Liberty Island remain unaware of them. This is where the U. S. Parks Service plays a pivotal role.

While it is not surprising that Sarah Palin got it wrong, it should be noted that if asked, most of us would likely get it wrong too.

Clearly, the chains were obvious when the statue was delivered and installed 125 years ago but that knowledge quickly faded from memory. Aided by the fact that the height of the pedestal made the chains and shackles impossible to see unless one were viewing the statue from a helicopter, the wishes of the original funders were fulfilled. No one need know the true meaning of the Statue of Liberty. For most of the years since the statue’s installation at Liberty Island, its true meaning has been kept in the dark. Even the U.S. agency tasked with the responsibility of caring for and educating the public about the statue had a hand in keeping the true meaning hidden.

One contention of those in opposition to the idea that the statue celebrated the end of slavery was the date the statue was proposed. Due to lack of funding, more than 20 years passed between the time the statue was first proposed in 1865 and the actual installation on Liberty Island in 1886. Those who wanted to downplay the connection between the statue and slavery insist that the year 1865 played no role in the idea to build the monument.  In a report released by the U.S. Park Service in 2000, the Park Service claimed that noted abolitionist Edouard de Laboulaye did not propose the idea of constructing a monument in 1865. Their report states:

sharon-kyle-moreThis story is a legend. All available evidence points to its conception in 1870 or 1871. The dinner party legend is traceable to a single source — an 1885 fund-raising pamphlet written by the statue’s sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, after the death of Laboulaye.

But somewhere along the way, the U.S. Parks Service changed its position. They now admit that

  • the year 1865 was a key element of the story;
  • Laboulaye is the father of the idea for the monument; and
  • he was an abolitionist who wanted to honor the emancipation of the slaves.

Perhaps pressure was brought to bear on the agency forcing them to change their literature and their website but today they devote pages to the history of the statue and prominently state that the statue was a gift to the United States from the people of France to celebrate “the Union’s victory in the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery.” You can find this and more at The National Parks Service website.

sharon kyleI started this piece with the video of Sarah Palin partly because any mention of Sarah somehow catches people’s attention but mostly because Sarah Palin’s understanding of the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty is probably not very different from most Americans. So while it is not surprising that Sarah Palin got it wrong, it should be noted that if asked, most of us would likely get it wrong too.

As an American who is a decendent of slaves, I find it all the more shameful that this country continues to have countless monuments honoring men known to have been slaveholders but nothing honoring the millions whose blood, sweat and tears built this country. From that perspective, the story of the Statue of Liberty and how it came to be a part of our national landscape is as important as the story of Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride and should be as widely known. The National Park Service took an important step towards that end when it changed its position. And people like Dr. Joy DeGruy and others likely had a hand in making that happen.

To all who made that happen, I say thank you.

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive

(Dr. Joy DeGruy can be seen in the video below. She talks about the statue at about 43 seconds into the video. She’s a great storyteller. Watch it – you won’t be disappointed.)


  1. Irene says

    Perhaps it should have been made for Africa as they still sell and trade slaves. Maybe they would not be selling people in the 21st century like merchandise if this had been gifted to them.
    Everyone is always talks about the salve in the United States but never mentions how they were sold by the same slave owners in Africa black men. this practice goes on today.

  2. Donna Nunan says

    Funny that you compare it to the ride of Paul Revere which is perhaps even more distorted in its history than the Statue of Liberty is.

  3. says

    I had known about the slavery chains since the 60’s from elders who told us . I had been looking to find actual evidence since 2 years ago I heard Dr. Joy DeGruy . Thank you for the connection . It only took me 47 years .

  4. Gary says

    So progressive means re writing history? What a load. The Statue was originally designed for the Suez Canal in Egypt.
    Bartholdi did not craft the basic design of Liberty specifically for America. As a young man, he had visited Egypt and was enchanted by the project underway to dig a channel between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. At Paris world’s fair of 1867, he met with the Khedive, the leader of Egypt, and proposed creating a work as wondrous as the pyramids or sphinxes. He then designed a colossal woman holding up a lamp and wearing the loose fitting dress of a fellah, a slave, to stand as a lighthouse at the entrance of the Suez Canal. The Egypt deal fell through, so Bartholdi decided to adventure to America to pitch his colossus.

  5. John Griffin says

    Thanks so much for the hard work you did in this wonderful and important article.
    ( The hyperlinks need to be repaired as they combine TWO links instead of the destination link)


  6. says

    I find this very interesting and also ironic that the people of the United States are still nothing but a bunch of bigots. The statue was given to end slavery but it still isn’t seen this way. What a shame.

  7. Tom Sanchez says

    “Non-voluntary immigrants”! To what degree will the government and American society truly talk and own up to the history of genocide, slavery, and other racist acts?

  8. Joe says

    I’d heard about the chains and always thought that the statue was symbolic of breaking loose from tyrants, dictators, and oppressors of every sort in every corner of the globe – after all, the 7 points on the crown symbolize the 7 continents and the 7 seas.

    I made the slavery connection as soon as I learned that the idea of building the stature had been proposed in 1865. Since the name of the statue is “Liberty enlightening the world,” I always felt the emphasis was more on how the freedoms and rights espoused in our constitution – and sadly NOT applicable to everyone until the 13th amendment was passed following the civil war, were a shining example for the world to emulate.

    Since the statue has grown to mean much more than its envisioners intended, such as refuge for immigrants, the first sight of America, a welcoming beacon, and the freedoms we are by right intended to enjoy, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, making sure that the the abolition of slavery is part of that list is very laudable.

    I just wish the American people would realize the irony of how many of those rights and freedoms have been taken away from us following the events of 9/11 – the most dramatic which happened in plain sight of the Statue of Liberty!

  9. AJeaL says

    Thank you Sharon,

    You have crafted here a truly luminescent portrayal that is both praise worthy and Pulitzer prize winning! ~Ashe` You Go Girl <3

  10. Donna Green says

    Thank you for posting this very informative article. I had no idea how Statue of Liberty played a part in Slavery.

  11. -Nate says

    THANK YOU for this well written and insightful article Sharon ! .

    Pretty much anything sarah palin says is made up the instant it’s leaving her mouth .


    • Retro Richard says

      You might find it interesting to know that American Indians, from the Cherokee to Sioux, kept slaves. In the case of the Cherokee in the Carolinas, Black slaves! Others took as slaves members of other tribes captured in raids or battle. My great grandmother was a Cherokee, and her sister was married to a former slave who was “freed” by the US Government, given a uniform and rank in the Cavalry and assigned to escort his former masters on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. The two escaped somewhere south of Ohio but failed to be reunited with the older sister who had settled in central Pennsylvania to raise 4 sons with my Great Grandfather. The two escapees were able to return to North Carolina and found a business and a large family…but…no slaves.

  12. Sylvia Moore says

    Thanks, Sharon, for posting this. I had no idea about the Statue of Liberty being connected to slavery and the abolition movement! I’ve visited the statue and knowing its true history makes me appreciate her even more. So much of what we know as “America” is a myth, and it makes me angry that our country continues to hide behind “exceptionalism” when much of it is a lie. Over the years, the scales have been dropped from my eyes.

  13. Don Duitz says

    Another very enlightening aspect of our progress and staticity, our glory and our shame, our creeping knowledge and our sickening rampant ignorance. I was touched!


  1. […] Edouard de Laboulaye, a famous French politician and abolitionist, is the man behind the Statue of Liberty. He was a firm backer of President Lincoln, who was fighting for the abolition of slavery. The statue was not a gift to warn the United States as Palin had stated. Instead, it was a gift to honor and celebrate freedom, democracy, and the end of all forms of servitude. That is why Lady Liberty has a broken chain at her foot. The chain is usually invisible to tourists because it is beneath her robe by the side of her left foot and can only be seen from the top. […]

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