Liberty Was a Goddess Long Before She Moved to America

(Excerpted from United Symbolism of America by Robert R. Hieronimus, Ph.D.)

Most of us in America today are so poorly trained in history that when we see a provocative comparison between the Statue of Liberty and the Roman and Greek goddesses who inspired her, we gasp in astonishment! Just a little digging into American history, however, will reveal that “Liberty Enlightening the World” follows a long tradition of identifying America as an assortment of female goddesses. Both Bartholdi’s time and the time period that he was saluting with his monument were influenced by the recurring waves of neoclassicism in the arts. Americans were identifying themselves with the goddess of Liberty long before there was a split between those loyal to Britain and those advocating independence. Liberty was a moral ideal held passionately by a large, articulate segment of Colonial society. Americans had come to think of their entire way of life as the pursuit of liberty, in religion, property-holding, business, social advancement, newspaper decision-making, expression of criticism, and self-determination. Franklin popularized a declaration made earlier by James Otis, that “Where Liberty dwells, there is my country.” Indeed liberals on both sides of the Atlantic regarded English America as the critical front in the crusade for liberty. Men interested in the advancement of mankind everywhere projected this ideal to the young nation-in-the-making with what amounted to religious fervor.

Beginning in the 1500s, European map-makers depicted the Western Hemisphere as a voluptuous Indian Queen astride an armadillo or an alligator, carrying a club and wearing eagle feathers in her headdress. Images drawn from eyewitness accounts of the Native or First Peoples made a strong impression in Europe, where even most women still believed that the female sex was the evil temptress in Man’s downfall and was appropriately subjugated by her father or husband. Reports and images of a matrilineal culture and women in leading roles were puzzling, and it would be several hundred more years before significant legal changes were made for white women to enjoy a similar sense of equality as our First People already had.