At Lady Liberty’s Feet

August 20, 2014 Updated: April 24, 2016

NEW YORK—Despite countless trips to New York, I had not made the pilgrimage to Liberty Island, until yesterday.

One reason I had procrastinated was I had heard it was crowded beyond all reason, as if Disney World fused with the world’s longest airport security line. Thrifty me considered just waving at her from the Staten Island Ferry, and crowd-averse me was not over the moon about infinite lines.

But someone I trust said it was worth it.

There was camaraderie in the lines. There were performers.

One musician would ask where people were from and then free associate their origin into a song. Mine was crackers, peaches, rednecks, and peanuts. He could not give me Martin Luther King? John Lewis? Otis Redding? For Egypt, it was pyramids and papyrus, and India was all about pretty ladies. I guess they are not known for an ancient civilization or Gandhi or anything.

Every continent but Antarctica had sent people to Liberty Island that day. I know it for a fact, because I was both talking to people and eavesdropping like a mad social scientist.

An old, bent man played the Star-Spangled Banner on a flute, very well, hauntingly.

Goddess of Democracy

His song hinted at the meaning that draws people to visit the colossal statue. Seeing her in her shlock form as lamp, snow globe, magnet, paperweight, shot glass, spoon, or costumed character does not prepare a person for the real thing’s dignified beauty. It’s like catching a glimpse of a deity, “the goddess of democracy,” as the Tiananmen Square protesters named their own liberty statue.

I lost count of how many different languages I heard, and despite the carnival atmosphere, one could feel that there was something deeper.

A man who looked Arabic paused, and gazed, with a tender, serious look.

A family of redheads all got the foam Liberty hats.

A Spanish-speaking family posed at Liberty’s feet, while the father knelt to get them in the frame with the statue.

Arms Up

A Chinese man stood with his arms up in a big V in front of the statue, smiling widely.

France was our first friend. Without the treasure and blood France gave to support our revolution, America might not have been born.

When the people of France decided to give the people of America this statue, it was meant to celebrate the centennial of the American Declaration of Independence. They were honoring our central principle:

Unalienable Rights

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

That idea was something new in the world. America was something new. We still are. We are human, and we have made and will still make mistakes. America is not perfect. But the idea that every human being is endowed with unalienable rights—that idea is perfect.

Those immortal words, as they are called, are still central to what America is. America tore itself apart in order to try to fulfill them—I mean by fighting an inconceivably deadly war to free slaves.

To this day, those ideals are at our core.

Sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was an abolitionist. He admired America for ending slavery. He intended to celebrate the principles of freedom as a rebuke to Napoleon, who was acting as a dictator, according to the Park Service tour guide.

She faces east to confront the Old World, to show them a beacon of human rights and freedom.

And the old and new worlds had flocked to visit her this weekend.