The Statue of Liberty has a mini-me in D.C. — well, if you consider “mini” to weigh 1,000 pounds and stand nine feet tall.
The bronze statue, dubbed “Lady Liberty’s Little Sister,” was crafted from the original 1878 plaster model that French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi used in his designs for the Statue of Liberty in New York.
On June 19, Little Lady Liberty embarked on a similar trek that her big sister took 135 years ago, crossing the Atlantic to join her full-size sibling on Ellis Island for America’s Independence Day. She was then trucked to D.C. to be displayed on the lawn of the French ambassador’s residence just in time for France’s Bastille Day.
On July 14, there was an air of déjà vu in D.C. as members of Congress, U.S. government officials, diplomats and media gathered at the palatial Kalorama residence for the official inauguration.
For many, it marked their first large post-pandemic diplomatic reception (the Brits, Danes, Irish, Italians and other embassies have held smaller gatherings). To allay concerns, all guests had to present proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test to enter. (I’m not sure if checking vaccination status will become standard for embassies, but everyone I spoke to said they appreciated it and hope it’s embraced by other event organizers).
Special guests included French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who greeted everyone in fluent French (he lived in Paris when he was younger).
“Our revolutions were over a dozen years apart, but the trajectories of our experiments in self-government — and their shared foundation in freedom and in human rights — they’ve always been intertwined,” Blinken told the crowd. “Throughout our history, in many ways we’ve been mirrors to one another, holding up not only our greatest achievements, but also our greatest flaws.”
Blinken said those flaws were highlighted by the Statue of Liberty itself. He cited an editorial published in a Black-owned newspaper days after the statue was unveiled that said:
“Shove the statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the same ‘liberty’ of this country…make[s] it possible for an industrious and inoffensive colored man in the south to earn a respectable living, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged.”
Blinken said the harsh commentary on America’s inequality encapsulates the ideals of the Statue of Liberty, which was designed “to project outwards and inwards our values and where we’re falling short.”
“That’s the journey of America, that’s the journey of France, that’s the journey of all free democracies: Not the perfect embodiment of principled self-government, but the perpetual effort to fix our flaws,” Blinken said.
“From the Revolutionary War to World War II, from the fight against slavery to the fight against fascism, we see it today, too, in the joint effort to tackle the climate crisis, to beat back this deadly pandemic, to remedy deep inequality,” he added, noting U.S. cooperation with the European Union to modernize NATO and combat 21st-century threats such cyber attacks, disinformation and unfair economic practices.
Before the speech, Blinken presented four American veterans of World War II with France’s prestigious La Legion d’Honneur. One of them, William Allison, was only 17 when he enlisted.
“When he and his battalion arrived in Marseille in 1944, a Frenchwoman who had come out to welcome them exclaimed, ‘My god, they’re children,’” Blinken said.
“But these young Americans would go on to help liberate France, fight valiantly along the Maginot Line and clear deadly mines that allowed the French people to return to their homes. To William, the most gratifying moment of his service came when he freed a group of French prisoners from a Nazi labor camp near Munich. In other words, his greatest achievement was restoring freedom — liberté.”
Also on hand to help with the unveiling was George Cleveland, the grandson of President Grover Cleveland, who unveiled the original Statue of Liberty.
Kimberly Bassett, secretary of state of the District of Columbia, pointed out that D.C. is home to more than 175 embassies and foreign missions, which “are part of a diverse and colorful fabric that makes up our nation’s capital.”
“Washington, D.C. has its own iconic landscapes, skylines and monuments that you’re all familiar with, but the addition of the Little Lady Liberty in the gardens of the French ambassador’s residence is a beautiful acknowledgement of our long-standing relationship and true friendship.”
Little Lady Liberty, which is one-sixteenth the size of its sibling in New York, had been on display in Paris over the last decade. It will now remain in D.C. for the next 10 years.
French Ambassador Philippe Étienne noted that the statue has a direct connection to the District. It stood in front of Paris’s Musée des Arts et Métiers in a square named after General Arthur Morrin, the uncle of James Berret, who was the mayor of D.C. from 1858 to 1861.
“And now, the statue will stand here, in D.C., as a great symbol — one of these innumerable traces of France in the United States,” the ambassador said. “I am truly honored to receive this symbol of the friendship between the French and American people, this liberty that enlightens the world — a core value for our nations that it is more important than ever to defend.”
Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.