The proud monument to American self-government that has greeted millions of newcomers to the US over the past 127 years stood resplendent as ever on Tuesday in the brilliant morning sunshine. Yet the Statue of Liberty was deserted, its thousands of scheduled visitors for the day turned away at the Manhattan shore by a sign explaining: "The government has temporarily shut down." "This is such a joke," Irina Stewart, 29, told a steward who was telling disappointed tourists patiently how to claim a refund.
"You are not the first person to tell me that," came the reply. "It's like some kind of playground argument, but in the most powerful government in the world," said Irina's husband, Gergely, 29, who grew up in London and now works as a headhunter in Moscow. That argument, led by conservative Republicans in Congress who refuse to approve any more spending unless President Barack Obama tears up his health care law, came to a head yesterday.
At midnight, for the first time in 17 years, the government of the world's biggest economy was forced to stop spending money. Departments were shuttered, national parks such as Liberty Island were roped off, and hundreds of thousands of "non-essential" public workers were ordered to stay at home, unpaid. Americans were embarrassed and angry. "Thanks for the shutdown and lack of pay," said Twyla Strogen, an IT contractor from West Virginia. "We, the public, your bosses, will return the favour at the polls."
One by one, the cheerful faces of international visitors slipped slowly into confused frowns as they learnt that the self-styled beacon of democracy had, for the moment at least, been snuffed out. "It is the splendid capital of the world economy," said Xy Zhang, a 33-year-old Chinese automotive engineer visiting New York for a week.
"But this is a strange business going on in Washington." Late into Monday evening, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had sent Bills to the Democrat-held Senate offering to keep the money flowing, but only if "ObamaCare" was delayed or watered down. Warned earlier by Mr Obama that "you can't shut it down", they knew what the answer would be.
"They have lost their minds," sighed Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader of Mr Obama's Democrats, who Republicans claim is the one refusing to compromise. Among those in the capital remaining clear-headed were groups of veterans from Mississippi and Iowa in town to visit the monument to the 417,000 Americans killed in the Second World War. Faced with a fenced-off park threatening to ruin their trip, the elderly comrades, some in wheelchairs, stormed the barricades and showed those on nearby Capitol Hill a thing or two about getting things done. "It's a god-awful shame," Glenn Hillesland, a 90-year-old veteran from Ames, said of the closure.
"An absolute, absolute shame. We need to hang our heads for what has happened here today. Unbelievable." Thanks to their derring-do, however, "it continues to be a great day", he added. Those government employees considered essential - soldiers, FBI agents, court officials, air traffic controllers - were spared. Some 436 of Obama's White House staff of 1,265 stayed at their desks.
Benefit cheques continued to be delivered to pensioners and the disabled by government-employed postmen, while meat inspectors from the food and drug administration kept searching for disease. Yet as congressmen continued debating the shutdown, many of their staff were preparing to leave work, unsure when they would be allowed to return - or even to check their government-issued BlackBerries. Aides reported to their offices to sign in as part of the procedure for an "orderly shutdown", but some carried cool-boxes full of beer in anticipation of spending the rest of the day drinking and waiting.
"There's an existential angst that comes with being told you're non-essential," said one staffer being sent home among many of the other 800,000 "furloughed" workers who live in Washington. Outside, the doors to the Smithsonian collection of museums and galleries had been locked. Online, government Twitter accounts such as a Nasa warning system for potentially cataclysmic approaches from asteroids fell silent.
"We sincerely hope to resume tweets soon," said its final message. Even the National Zoo's beloved "panda cam", allowing animal-lovers to watch Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and their unnamed newborn cub, went dark, although keepers stressed that feeding and care would go on. The city, however, did offer some sympathy measures. At Astro Doughnuts and Fried Chicken, federal workers were given free doughnuts on presentation of their federal government IDs. Z-Burger was handing out free hamburgers. On the other side of the country, visitors to California's Yosemite National Park, many of whom had already paid for tours, were told it was closed, park employees having been sent home and campsites closed. Those already inside were given 48 hours to leave.
One tourist, Laura Clark-Moore, said on what was the 123rd anniversary of Yosemite becoming a national park that it was a "bummer that our government can't get it together". In Hollywood, producers were warned that shoots on federal land would be cancelled and visas for international stars could be delayed due to staff reductions at the State Department. And there was no mercy at the Grand Canyon, in neighbouring Arizona. "Trails will be closed, overlooks will be closed," said a spokesman. "There will be no mule rides."