It’s hard to imagine what New York City would look like without the Statue of Liberty. Yet there was a time in American history, over a century ago, when Lady Liberty nearly wound up in Philadelphia or San Francisco. The fact that she still holds her torch aloft on Liberty Island in New York Harbor is a testament to the will of the American people—though the call to action came from Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant who came to this country penniless and remade himself into a successful newspaper publisher.
Pulitzer’s name is associated with many things: the sensationalized style of reporting his newspaper sometimes employed, called yellow journalism; the bitter rivalry he had with William Randolph Hearst, another newspaper mogul; and of course the Pulitzer Prize, which Pulitzer established via an endowment in his will.
He was also a galvanizer who believed print media could be used to influence people for the betterment of society. Perhaps the best example of this "journalism of action," as his rival Hearst called it, is how Pulitzer handled the news that the Statue of Liberty was in jeopardy.
In 1885, the dismantled statue was shipped to America as a gift from France. It was intended to be a symbol of American liberty and democracy, as well as a token of the bond forged between the two allies during the American Revolution. France had paid for the statue in its entirety; all it needed was a pedestal to stand on. America was on the hook for designing and constructing the pedestal at an expense of about $250,000 (about $6.55 million in 2019 dollars).
The American Committee for the Statue of Liberty, which was tasked with raising funds for the construction of the monument, raised a little over half of the funds. Both the state of New York and U.S. Congress refused to cover the remainder. The pieces of Lady Liberty ended up sitting in a warehouse, and at one point, the fundraising committee threatened to send the statue back to France if it didn't get the necessary funds.
This was before the advent of American philanthropy, which began around the time that Andrew Carnegie published his 1889 "The Gospel of Wealth"—an article urging other Gilded Age millionaires to give away a portion of their wealth for the common good. So if the committee was going to get the money for its pedestal, they were going to have to get it from average Americans. The committee made public appeals across the country for donations of "any amount, however large and however small." In exchange for their subscription to the statue fund, donors were promised an illustrated certificate.
But it proved difficult to convince Americans outside of New York to open their pocketbooks. As one Indianan put it, the monument was seen as a “New York affair,” rather than “a national matter.” Another person questioned why the fundraising committee was trying to get “the people of Chicago and Connecticut … to pay the expense that those of New York would like to avoid," according to newspaper accounts.
Several cities offered to pay for the pedestal in exchange for the exclusive rights to erect the statue on their territory. An article published by the Philadelphia Press said the city would welcome the statue to its Fairmount Park. San Francisco said Lady Liberty would look lovely standing in front of the Golden Gate strait (the bridge that would bear the strait's name had not yet been built). Boston and Baltimore also made bids for the statue.
That’s when Pulitzer stepped in. He sponsored small fundraisers, which included boxing matches, theater productions, art shows, and the sale of mini Statues of Liberty, and published multiple editorials in his newspaper, The New York World (later shortened to The World), in an attempt to garner sympathy for the plight of the statue.
In his most famous editorial, Pulitzer wrote, “We must raise the money! The World is the people's paper, and now it appeals to the people to come forward and raise the money.”
He went on to add:
“The $250,000 that the making of the Statue cost was paid in by the masses of the French people—by the working men, the tradesmen, the shop girls, the artisans—by all, irrespective of class or condition. Let us respond in like manner. Let us not wait for the millionaires to give us this money. It is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America.”
Remarkably, it worked. Pulitzer received small donations from 125,000 people, which amounted to a sum of $102,000 (or roughly $2.7 million in today’s dollars). The money was sent to the Statue of Liberty’s fundraising committee, and the monument’s future in New York was secured.
As a way of thanking the donors, Pulitzer printed their names in his newspaper, regardless of whether they had contributed a dime or a dollar. This early experiment in pre-internet crowdfunding proved to be a pioneering example of what average Americans could accomplish without the backing of the rich.
Pulitzer’s paper continued to print news of the statue’s development, and did so in a most peculiar way. “In one editorial after another, the publisher spoke of the statue as if it were a human being and, at the time of her inauguration, went so far as to ‘interview’ her about the New York mayoral campaign of 1886,” Edward Berenson writes in The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story (she picked eventual winner Abram Hewitt over future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt).
The Statue of Liberty ultimately became a symbol of America and American values, which extend far beyond the New York Harbor. And for that, we can thank Pulitzer and his powers of persuasion.