The Statue of Liberty, a towering beacon standing at the entrance to New York Harbor, is one of the most iconic monuments worldwide. A gift from France to the United States, it symbolizes freedom, democracy, and the enduring friendship between the two nations. However, the objects she holds—a torch in her right hand and a tablet in her left—carry a profound meaning. Let's explore the symbolism behind these items and their significance in the broader context of the Statue of Liberty.
The Statue of Liberty's torch is perhaps her most distinctive feature. Held high above her head in her right hand, it is a beacon of hope and enlightenment. The torch signifies the illumination of the path to freedom and plays a significant role in the statue's imagery. It's a powerful symbol, suggesting that liberty enlightens the world, and it's no coincidence that the statue was a beacon for immigrants arriving in America, many of whom saw the torch before they saw anything else.
Interestingly, the torch that we see today is not the original. The first torch was replaced in 1986 during the statue's restoration. The original torch, which had been altered multiple times and had numerous layers of paint and metalwork, was removed and replaced with a copper torch covered in 24k gold leaf. The new torch reflects Bartholdi's original design and intent more accurately, and it shines brightly thanks to its gold leaf covering.
Visitors can view the original torch in the Statue of Liberty Museum. Despite its replacement, it remains an integral part of the statue's history. Regardless of its physical form, the torch's symbolic significance as a beacon of hope and enlightenment remains a constant, shining as brightly in the collective consciousness as it does in New York Harbor.
In her left hand, the Statue of Liberty holds a tablet known as a tabula ansata. This term, derived from Latin, translates to "a tablet with handles" and was used in many classical statues.
The tablet is a symbol of the rule of law. It represents the concept that true freedom is founded on law and justice, a deeply embedded principle in American philosophy. The tablet held by the Statue of Liberty is inscribed with the date of the United States' independence, July 4, 1776, represented in Roman numerals (JULY IV MDCCLXXVI). The date is a powerful symbol itself, marking the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted and the birth of the nation.
The tablet measures 23' 7" tall, 13' 7" wide, and 2' thick, making it a significant part of the statue's height. The Roman numerals are 2' tall, visible from below despite the statue's immense height.
Unlike many depictions of Lady Liberty, where she holds the tablet close to her body, the Statue of Liberty holds the tablet away from her body, further emphasizing its significance. The tablet is not an afterthought; it's an integral part of the statue's symbolism.
The combination of the torch and the tablet - enlightenment and law - encapsulates the values that the United States was built upon. Through these two objects, the Statue of Liberty communicates that freedom and independence are born from enlightenment and upheld by the rule of law.
Beyond the torch and the tablet, the Statue of Liberty contains numerous other symbolic elements contributing to its powerful message. Some of these additional symbols include:
Crown and Spikes: Lady Liberty wears a crown with seven rays or spikes protruding from it. These spikes symbolize the seven continents and seven oceans of the world, highlighting the universal concept of liberty. They also signify the spreading of enlightenment and freedom across the globe.
Robe and Sandals: The statue is dressed in a flowing robe and sandals inspired by classical Roman and Greek attire. This choice of clothing signifies the influence of ancient civilizations that valued democracy and freedom, and it further emphasizes the statue's connection to the ideas of the Enlightenment.
Broken Chains: At the feet of the Statue of Liberty lie broken chains and shackles. These represent breaking free from tyranny, oppression, and enslavement. This powerful symbol is often overlooked, as it is not visible from a distance but remains an essential part of the statue's meaning.
The Pedestal: The pedestal upon which the statue stands also holds significance. Designed by American architect Richard Morris Hunt, it is made of granite and represents the strong foundation of American democracy. The pedestal's design includes elements of both classical and contemporary styles, symbolizing the fusion of old and new ideas in the pursuit of freedom.
The Torch's Flame: The torch's flame is covered in gold leaf, ensuring that it remains illuminated even when the sun is not shining on it. This symbolizes the enduring nature of freedom and the idea that liberty is a guiding light in dark times.
These additional symbolic elements work together with the torch and the tablet to create a rich and powerful message about freedom, democracy, and the values that the United States aspires to uphold.
Preserving the Statue of Liberty, including the torch and tablet, is an ongoing effort to maintain this symbol of freedom and democracy for future generations. These efforts have included the aforementioned replacement of the torch, along with other significant restoration work carried out for the statue's centennial in 1986. Today, the statue undergoes regular maintenance and inspections to ensure its longevity.
The Statue of Liberty stands as a powerful symbol, not only because of her towering presence but also because of the meaningful objects she holds. The torch and tablet, representing enlightenment and the rule of law, are as significant today as they were when the statue was dedicated in 1886. Together, they remind us of our collective journey toward freedom and the enduring power of democracy.
The iconic statue, with her torch, held high and tablet securely in her arm, continues to inspire millions of visitors each year. The sight of Lady Liberty, holding these symbols of freedom and enlightenment, remains a poignant welcome to immigrants arriving in the United States, much like she did for the millions who came through Ellis Island during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Understanding the significance of what the Statue of Liberty holds—both the torch and the tablet—enhances our appreciation of this remarkable monument. These symbols are a constant reminder of the enduring values of the Statue of Liberty: freedom, enlightenment, and the rule of law. As we gaze upon Lady Liberty, we are reminded of the principles that form the foundation of our nation and the enduring promise of democracy.
The story of the Statue of Liberty and the objects she holds is a testament to the power of symbols. They remind us of where we come from, guide us in where we are going, and inspire us to carry the torch of freedom for future generations.