Without France, the American Revolution would, in all likelihood, have failed. The two countries have shared a special relationship ever since. The most visible symbol of this relationship is the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France in 1886, in honor of our 100th birthday and the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.
At the time of the gift, Democracy was still a rare occurrence in the world. And as we all know, a government of, by and for the people is a difficult thing to achieve. In reading about the history of the Statue of Liberty, I learned about some of the controversies surrounding the installation of this now iconic symbol of American promise.
Unfortunatly, women were not permitted to attend the official dedication of Lady liberty, except for the wife and the granddaughter of the sculptor. During the dedication, suffragettes rented boats and protested in New York Harbor. It would 34 more years before they were granted the right to vote.
People of color used the occasion to draw attention to deficiencies in our national character. Shortly after the dedication, The Cleveland Gazette, an African American newspaper, suggested that the statue's torch not be lit until the United States became a free nation "in reality":
"Liberty enlightening the world," indeed! The expression makes us sick. This government is a howling farce. It can not or rather does not protect its citizens within its own borders. Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the "liberty" of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed. The idea of the "liberty" of this country "enlightening the world," or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme.
Isn't it ironic that 131 years later, this editorial still resonates, a testament to the fact that racism, sexism and the struggle for equal opportunity continue to challenge "We the People of the United States" to work harder "In order to form a more perfect Union" and "Secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."
Mark Twain once said that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
So while we can't jet off to France or some other distant shore on a regular basis, we can seek out the stranger next door – the person of color, the muslim, a person whose economic situation, sexual orientation or views are different from our own. And should we be blessed to find someone who is open to helping us understand how it is for them, we are on the verge of learning something about ourselves and the people we are speaking with. This listening – and willingness to dialogue – is the foundation of our Democracy and, I believe, exactly what our country needs more of at this moment in our history.