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The Statue of Liberty is a robed female figure representing Libertas, the Roman goddess. She holds a torch above her head, and in her left arm carries a tabula ansata (a tablet evoking the law) inscribed "July 4, 1776", the date of the American Declaration of Independence. A broken chain lies at her feet. The statue became an icon of freedom and of the United States, and was a welcoming sight to immigrants arriving from abroad.

Bartholdi was inspired by French law professor and politician Édouard René de Laboulaye, who is said to have commented in 1865 that any monument raised to American independence would properly be a joint project of the French and American peoples. Due to the post-war instability in France, work on the statue did not commence until the early 1870s. In 1875, Laboulaye proposed that the French finance the statue and the Americans would provide the site and build the pedestal. Bartholdi completed the head and the torch-bearing arm before the statue was fully designed, and these pieces were exhibited for publicity at international expositions.

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