Imagine you’ve never been to China. You don’t even know a single soul in China. And yet you set off to pitch the Chinese people on your idea for a colossal statue intended to be taller than their tallest skyscraper. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi did exactly this when he came to America in 1871 to pitch a nation on the Statue of Liberty. It’s hard to fathom such hubris.
Key background though is that Bartholdi was not setting sail during a period of French calm. The Franco-Prussian war had only just ended, his beloved home region of Alsace given away in the negotiations. Paris, where he had been living for more than two decades, still smoldered from fires set by the Communards in a gruesome battle with the French government known as The Bloody Week. Ten thousand French citizens had been slaughtered in the streets.
An exile from Alsace, Bartholdi arrived back to Paris two days after the last Communard holdouts faced a firing squad against the wall of the Père-Lachaise cemetery. Bartholdi found “houses in ruins, facades torn to pieces. Troops have occupied my house. Holes in the courtyard walls go through… not a pane of glass left.”
When he set sail, only 40 passengers wandered the ship intended to carry 300. Few people had the money or will or optimism to head off on a voyage. Yet Bartholdi carried the designs for a statue he had conceived for Egypt, hoping to find a new buyer.