The official name of the statue that France gave to the U.S. is "The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World." Trying to figure out what it means as a text is not nearly as easy as most Americans think.
The idea for the statue was born in France, in 1865, in a discussion about the end of the American Civil War and the death of Lincoln at the home of Edouard de Laboulaye, a prominent French abolitionist and critic of the pro-Confederacy policy of the French government during the Civil War. Nothing became of the idea, however, until several years later, when sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi began planning a design for a statue to be presented to the U.S. in 1876, the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. It took over a decade more to raise the money for the statue (paid for by the people of France) and the pedestal (paid for by American contributors), and by the time the statue was officially inaugurated in 1886 there was no mention of either the Civil War or the abolition of slavery.
So what does it symbolize? The DEDICATION PLAQUE attached to the statue itself says it "commemorates the Alliance" between France and America that dates back to the Revolutionary War. On the other hand, the 1883 poem by Emma Lazarus, called "THE NEW COLOSSUS", explicitly condemns the entire old world and celebrates America as a refuge for all who ever crossed the ocean to reach "the golden door" that leads to freedom. By erecting the statue in NEW YORK HARBOR and having it face outwards, America endorsed Lazarus' reading of both the symbol and our nation's history. And America as a land of freedom for people fleeing tyranny or injustice abroad is THE MEANING most of us still "see" when we look at the statue.
If we look closely at Bartholdi's statue, however, another possible meaning emerges. Although few people know about it, on her left foot Liberty wears A BROKEN SHACKLE. According to the National Park Service's OFFICIAL GUIDE to the Statue, the "symbolism of the design" of the shackle can be quoted to support Lazarus' reading of the statue: "The broken shackles of tyranny that are molded at the feet of Liberty spoke for themselves to generations of people fleeing tyranny." In other words, the shackles obviously refer to Old World injustices. But in France in 1865 the broken shackles would more likely have "spoken" about the broken shackles of slavery and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Symbols never "speak for themselves," of course. Their meaning depends greatly on the interpreter's point of view. The 250-year history of slavery in America complicates the idea that all who reached our shores were able to "breathe free," so it's easy to understand why Americans would want to repress any interpretation that recalled that part of the nation's past. But what if the Statue of Liberty had been erected in Washington, D.C., on the site of a former slave auction block? What would "liberty" have meant then? and what story about our country would the symbol remind us of? [source: http://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enlt214m/libertyhp.html]