Liberty -- a gift

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AS the nation prepares to celebrate the centennial of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty on Independence Day this year, we should keep in mind that Americans in 1886 were no less exuberant about the gift from the French people. In fact, Oct. 28, 1886, the dedication day, was like ``a hundred Fourths of July broke loose,'' according to a contemporary description, ``and despite the calendar rolled themselves into a delirious and glorious one.'' The weather was scarcely cooperative for the occasion. The day before, cold winds blew over what was then called Bedloe's Island, making it difficult for workmen to complete the last-minute chores. Then Oct. 28 dawned heavy with clouds that would intermittently drop drizzle and enshroud the lady in mist.

No matter, thousands poured into the city for the ceremonies on land and sea. And the emotions were not dampened one bit by the weather.

Some 100 bands of nearly 12,000 people suggested to one observer that ``it seemed to have rained brass bands during the night and hailed gorgeousness, with no drainage to carry the surplus away.'' There were bands of 70 people and some of seven -- ``bands from Washington that could be heard a mile; bands from Philadelphia that couldn't be heard at all and seemed to be going through the motions, but doing their best.''

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Not since the funeral of President Ulysses S. Grant the year before had so many crowded along the parade route. And the waters surrounding Bedloe's Island were filled with vessels. ``Such a tooting and bellowing and churning as whipped the waters around the island into yeast, as they took their places, has never in the wildest pilot's dream been seen before, and a hundred collisions impended at once and were averted by that neat turn in the nick of time which only the tricksters of the wheel understand.''

The grand moment, of course, was the statue's unveiling, rendered difficult by the rainy weather that made the veil heavy and cumbersome. But after a half-hour delay, the deed was done: ``Thunder after thunder shook cloud and sea, the brazen voice of steam lifted its utmost clamors, colors dipped, men cheered and women applauded, the sounds from the sea were hurled back from the land, bell spoke to bell and cannon to cannon, till all men by the thousands gathered in her honor knew that Liberty had been given and received.''

The speeches from French and American dignitaries rivaled the superlatives of the correspondents. ``In landing beneath its rays,'' said Count de Lesseps, ``the people will know that they have reached a land where individual initiative is developed in all its powers; where progress is a religion; where great fortunes become popular by the charity they bestow and by encouraging instruction and science and casting their influence into the future.''

Speaking in a loud voice -- and for generations to come -- President Cleveland summarized the essence of the statue: ``We will not forget that Liberty has here made her home . . . . Willing votaries shall keep its fires alive, and they shall gleam upon the shores of our sister republic in the East, reflect thence, and, joined with answering rays, a stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and men's oppression until liberty shall enlighten the world.''

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