Jul 242013

What IS Right With America? “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

You may know that the phrase “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” is connected with the Statue of Liberty, but do you know how the connection between the statue and the poem evolved?

The Statue of Liberty, itself, was given to the United States as a gift from France in honor of its centennial. However, private funds had to be raised in order to create a pedestal for the statue. That would be more than $100,000 dollars of private funds in the 1880’s when many in the United States were struggling to economically recover from the Civil War. The American Committee of the Statue of Liberty raised money for the pedestal in a number of ways including an auction of literary works and pieces of art. The question became how to find artists and writers who were willing to donate their work?

Enter Emma Lazarus. Ms. Lazarus was a Sephardic Jew of Portuguese descent, and she spent much of her time working with Jewish immigrants from Russia who were detained at Castle Garden. While the name might sound somewhat bucolic, the facility was located within The Battery of New York City and served as an immigration depot during the late nineteenth century. Although conditions for those immigrating to the United States had improved from what existed earlier in the century, immigrants continued to be transported in overcrowded and unkempt vessels. Local residents were not happy about the establishment of Castle Garden, and attacked its existence not only in local media but often physically as well.

Lazarus was not only a volunteer, but a poet as well. She was approached by William Maxwell Evarts to contribute a poem to the fundraising effort for the pedestal. Although she had little interest in the project, her friend Constance Cary Harrison convinced her that the statue would be an important first sight for immigrants as they entered the New York harbor. She had enough familiarity with Bartholdi’s conception of the statue that her poem began by referencing the Colossus of Rhodes. It then went on to reshape Lady Liberty into the “Mother of Exiles.” In one poem, with fourteen short lines, the colossal statue was transformed from a representation of a core principle upon which the nation was founded, into a beckoning light for those who sought freedom and opportunity not available to them in their homeland.

Lazarus died four years after writing the poem. She was a mere 38 years old. “The New Colossus” received little attention after it was read at the auction which was held at New York’s Academy of Design on December 3, 1883. It was Georgina Schuyler, a friend of Lazarus, who managed to have the text of the poem placed on a bronzed plaque and placed in the lower level of the Statue of Liberty. As time passed, the Statue of Liberty came to be less associated with the concept of liberty, itself, and more connected to the idea of welcoming new immigrants into the land of promise and opportunity.

Read the powerful imagery and message created by Lazarus in her poem “The New Colossus”:

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Please take a moment to consider that the United States of America is indeed a country which offers freedom and opportunity to those who seek it. While we currently struggle to resolve issues concerning illegal immigration, our cultural fabric has been enriched by a history of opening our doors to those who are willing to strive for personal success though hard work and personal responsibility. It is one of the aspects of What IS Right with America.


Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.


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