Who Paid for the Statue of Liberty?

Profile portrait of Joseph Pulitzer
Getty Images

The Statue of Liberty was a gift from the people of France, and the copper statue was, for the most part, paid for by French citizens.

However, the stone pedestal upon which the statue stands on an island in New York Harbor was paid for by Americans, through a fund-raising drive organized by a newspaper publisher, Joseph Pulitzer

The French writer and political figure Edouard de Laboulaye first came up with the idea of a statue celebrating liberty that would be a gift from France to the United States. The sculptor Fredric-Auguste Bartholdi became fascinated by the idea and went forward with designing the potential statue and promoting the idea of building it. The problem, of course, was how to pay for it.

The promoters of the statue in France formed an organization, the French-American Union, in 1875. The group issued a statement calling for donations from the public and presenting a general plan specifying that the statue would be paid for by France, while the pedestal upon which the statue would stand would be paid for by Americans.

That meant fundraising operations would have to take place on both sides of the Atlantic. Donations began coming in throughout France in 1875. It was felt inappropriate for France’s national government to donate money for the statue, but various city governments contributed thousands of francs, and approximately 180 cities, towns, and villages eventually gave money.

Thousands of French schoolchildren gave small contributions. Descendants of French officers who had fought in the American Revolution a century before, including relatives of Lafayette, gave donations. A copper company donated the copper sheets that would be used to fashion the skin of the statue.

When the hand and torch of the statue were displayed in Philadelphia in 1876 and later in New York’s Madison Square Park, donations trickled in from enthused Americans.

The fund drives were generally successful, but the cost of the statue kept rising. Facing a shortfall of money, the French-American Union held a lottery. Merchants in Paris donated prizes, and tickets were sold.

The lottery was a success, but more money was still needed. The sculptor Bartholdi eventually sold miniature versions of the statue, with the name of the buyer engraved on them.

Finally, in July 1880 the French-American Union announced that enough money had been raised to complete the building of the statue.

The total cost for the enormous copper and steel statue was about two million francs (estimated to be about $400,000 in American dollars of the time). But another six years would pass before the statue could be erected in New York.

Who Paid for the Statue of Liberty's Pedestal

While the Statue of Liberty is a cherished symbol of America today, getting the people of the United States to accept the gift of the statue was not always easy.

The sculptor Bartholdi had traveled to America in 1871 to promote the idea of the statue, and he returned for the nation’s grand centennial celebrations in 1876. He spent the Fourth of July 1876 in New York City, crossing the harbor to visit the future location of the statue at Bedloe’s Island.

But despite Bartholdi’s efforts, the idea of the statue was difficult to sell. Some newspapers, most notably the New York Times, often criticized the statue as folly and vehemently opposed spending any money on it.

While the French had announced that the funds for the statue were in place in 1880, by late 1882 the American donations, which would be needed to build the pedestal, were sadly lagging.

Bartholdi recalled that when the torch had first been displayed at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876, some New Yorkers had been worried that the city of Philadelphia might wind up getting the entire statue. So Bartholdi tried to generate more rivalry in the early 1880s and floated a rumor that if New Yorkers didn’t want the statue, perhaps Boston would be happy to take it.

The ploy worked, and New Yorkers, suddenly fearful of losing the statue entirely, began holding meetings to raise money for the pedestal, which was expected to cost about $250,000. Even the New York Times dropped its opposition to the statue.

Even with the generated controversy, the cash was still slow to appear. Various events were held, including an art show, to raise money. At one point a rally was held on Wall Street. But no matter how much public cheerleading took place, the future of the statue was very much in doubt in the early 1880s.

One of the fund-raising projects, an art show, commissioned poet Emma Lazarus to write a poem related to the statue. Her sonnet "The New Colossus" would eventually link the statue to immigration in the public mind.

It was a likely possibility that the statue while being finished in Paris would never leave France as it would have no home in America.

The newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who had purchased The World, a New York City daily, in the early 1880s, took up the cause of the statue’s pedestal. He mounted an energetic fund drive, promising to print the name of each donor, no matter how small the donation.

Pulitzer’s audacious plan worked, and millions of people around the country began donating whatever they could. Schoolchildren across America began donating pennies. For instance, a kindergarten class in Iowa sent $1.35 to Pulitzer’s fund drive.

Pulitzer and the New York World were finally able to announce, in August 1885, that the final $100,000 for the statue’s pedestal had been raised.

Construction work on the stone structure continued, and the next year the Statue of Liberty, which had arrived from France packed in crates, was erected on top.

Today the Statue of Liberty is a beloved landmark and is lovingly cared for by the National Park Service. And the many thousands of visitors who visit Liberty Island each year might never suspect that getting the statue built and assembled in New York was a long slow struggle.

For the New York World and Joseph Pulitzer, the building of the pedestal of the statue became a source of great pride. The newspaper used an illustration of the statue as a trademark ornament on its front page for years. And an elaborate stained glass window of the statue was installed in the New York World building when it was built in 1890. That window was later donated to Columbia University's School of Journalism, where it resides today.

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McNamara, Robert. "Who Paid for the Statue of Liberty?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2021, thoughtco.com/who-paid-for-the-statue-of-liberty-1773828. McNamara, Robert. (2021, January 26). Who Paid for the Statue of Liberty? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-paid-for-the-statue-of-liberty-1773828 McNamara, Robert. "Who Paid for the Statue of Liberty?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-paid-for-the-statue-of-liberty-1773828 (accessed June 4, 2023).