“The New Colossus,” is the name of the poem that sits at the base of our lady liberty. Historically, the poems inscription has defined a picture in the minds of many people, world round and in the country itself, of what America strives to be. This definition of ideal speaks to the great American Experiment as a whole, to put it frankly, it speaks of Liberty itself with the lady standing as a beacon of this enduring drive.
Most folks understand that the statue exists, but when asked to recall the story of its arrival on Liberty Island in New York… it gets a little hazy. I have taken the time to do a little digging and to summarize the events involving the rise of this American Icon.
The old Colossus on the ancient Greek island of Rhodes is one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Its scope for its time, erected near 280 BC, was apparently incredible. It was built in honor of the son god Helios as a relic of war, in the defense of the island. The height of the statue is contested to be nearly 110 feet, this is over twice the height of the awesome pyramid at Giza This masterwork was made of bronze, radiating a reflective light off the body of a perfectly sculpted idealized male figure. It pierced the skies of the Mediterranean world. Sadly, an Earthquake destroyed the relic only 54 years from its mysterious rise and invading forces eventually broke up the remains for scrap in 654 AD, erasing the echo of the wonder.
The New Colossus would not arrive until millennia after. The spectacle would not be a monument to war, nor an ode to the old Greek vision of masculinity or dominance, but rather it rose as a tower of enlightenment. In our financial center, our old world port of entry; a new bronze coated figure would dominate the skyline of our eastern shore, not a nude man shielding his eyes from the light of the sun but a robed woman holding a lantern sharing a light of her own, standing as a proverbial lighthouse to wayward and inspired souls alike.
Initially the statue was the idea of a French sculptor named Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. Failing to secure the US governments financial backing for his work and previously being denied at the Suez Canal entrance, he turned to friend Edouard De Laboulaye. Laboulaye like Bartholdi was a lover of American history and especially wanted to honor the outcome of the civil war as a beacon of enlightenment for all mankind. The two very much loved the idea of some kind of Franco-American monument tying the nations together in a declaration of international Liberty.
The men in turn took their idea to the people themselves, proposing that donations could be made to build it. In 1875, they formed what was called the Franco-American Union and allowed for French funding for the statue itself, rallying the Americans to raise money for its base in the New York Harbor. Upon the initial reveal of the statues hand and torch, when questioned why they did not bring more, the artistic duo decided to threaten to move the statue to Philadelphia, soon after the torch hand was on exhibition in Madison Square.
American committees would spring up selling miniature statues to raise money for the exciting project selling nationwide. Fundraising included prizefights, theatrical showings, art exhibitions and many other unique efforts for the project. Finally, after the initial attempts to woo the public had still yet to produce the desired money in America, renowned publisher Joseph Pulitzer put a call out in the popular tabloid at the time New York World for Americans to join the French in their effort. Telling his readers they should be ashamed that the French had already done what we could not would do. The trick worked and as a result the nearly 100, 000 of the 250,000 necessary at the time was raised, coming in mostly at a dollar or less completing the bid for the monument.
This tremendous public effort connected the common people with the statue at the time. There was a sense that this was “ours” that the elites didn’t do this, the government didn’t do this, free people in two separate free places did this and it would become as iconic as any American or French symbol. Upon its final reveal on October 23rd, 1986, during the first New York City ticker tape parade in its honor, the crowd gathered approximating over a million. It erupted in fifteen minutes of continual applause at the awe inspiring sight , Grover Cleveland, President at the time publicly stated “she holds aloft the light which illumines the way to man’s enfranchisement,” he also proclaimed Bartholdi as “the greatest man in America today” as he formally accepted the gift from France.
Nearly two decades after lady liberty gained her home, the inscription of the poem entitled “the New Colossus” was mounted to the base of the statue. It had been written for one of many fundraising efforts attempted by US charities in its ideological infancy, by American author, poet, and immigrant activist Emma Lazarus.
The plaque was mounted to the base of the lady’s abode bearing the poem:
“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!”
The spirit in which those words were written echo the sentiments of the men who inspired it, and the people that literally sold the idea which was bought by American consumers. Fitting that the moral tower bearing a beacon to the immigrant would also be built by immigrants at the time, and usher in waves of future immigrants who would help to rebuild the United States after her Civil War into THE world power, coming out of World War II.
Immigration has always been the trend in the Americas, since the puritans piled aboard the May flower, and perhaps even before that with new claims of earlier Viking settlements. The Native Americans too even earlier were immigrants. As “civilizing” efforts and revolution carved out what became the United States, the constitution and its laws have determined the scope and degree of immigration in this part of the Americas, degree which has historically been determined by the evolution of that law.
The Federal Government did not participate in the monument’s erection financially, but was happy to receive it upon completion, it would benefit greatly from its acquisition and maintenance in later years, and transitively so too would all of America. Even those who did not initially invest, would come to benefit from the profit of its attraction and economy. It has not only inspired immigration, and our imaginations… it inspired our war efforts as well. Helping us win with its image propagated in war bond posters and serving as a picturesque reminder of our “moral superiority” during the cold war. In earlier 2019 a privately funded 100-million-dollar museum was founded further establishing the cherishment of this international treasure, even to this day.
Lazarus wrote her poem to glorify a vision of America that she held dear. As an activist for Jewish refugees fleeing from Czarist Russia, she was not only an anti-imperialist, she was a resounding anti-fascist as well. Many of her greatest works speak on the face of dynamic immigration in her own time and rising antisemitism here and abroad. She knew that many disagreed with her vision, but she also held in her heart that enough would agree with her to help build the statue in the first place auctioning the poem initially to fund the project itself. She would pass on 4 years after the poem was written, living to know her inspired words had help create a beacon for the immigrant. 16 years after her death, in memorial of her life and work, her words would be revived and championed as the defining message on the New Colossus.
The poem in the hearts of many Americans, and to many others world round. It speaks across the ages as an ideal of what America ought to be. Much like Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Lazarus’ poem would clash with the law of the land as the moral ideal of America continues to fight the reality of law in America.
Even today we struggle with the idea of immigration, despite its storied past, and immeasurable impact on our society for the betterment of our nation, many still hold fears of the other as something to be weary of. Perhaps it would help those readers to know that my great- great- great -great -grandfather was an immigrant who did not speak English, an Irishman deemed ill fit for American society by some in the private sectors as well as some elected officials of his day.
Today my family is proudly spread from shore to shore in every walk of life; entrepreneurs, civil servants, mechanics, tradesman, and amateur historians, all American and damn happy to be so. We may not all agree on everything but making the refugees struggle more arduous has been unamerican to many of us since even before the historic 1903 endowment of the celebrated activists’ poem. This is why it was widely acclaimed then and holds staying power now. Whether or not the poem reflects government policy in any era, those deeply held American values should be forever reluctant to fade.