A Poem by Emma Lazarus Changed the Meaning of Lady Liberty

Emma Lazarus, author of "The New Colossus"

 Hulton Archive / Getty Images

When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886, the ceremonial speeches had nothing to do with immigrants arriving in America. The sculptor who created the enormous statue, Fredric-Auguste Bartholdi, never intended the statue to evoke the idea of immigration. In a sense, he viewed his creation as something nearly opposite: as a symbol of liberty spreading outward from America.

So how and why did the statue become an iconic symbol of immigration? The Statue is now always linked in the public mind with arriving immigrants thanks to the words of Emma Lazarus. Lady Liberty took on deeper meaning because of the sonnet written in its honor, "The New Colossus."

Poet Emma Lazarus Was Asked to Write a Poem

Before the Statue of Liberty was completed and shipped to the United States for assembly, a campaign was organized by newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer to raise funds to build the pedestal on Bedloe’s Island. Donations were very slow in coming, and in the early 1880s it appeared that the statue might never be assembled in New York. There were even rumors that another city, perhaps Boston, could wind up with the statue.

Fundraising events were organized, one of which was an art show. The poet Emma Lazarus, who was known and respected in the artistic community in New York City, was asked to participate.

Lazarus was a 34-year-old native New Yorker, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family with roots going back to the colonial era in New York City. She had become very concerned about the plight of Jews being persecuted in a pogrom in Russia.

Newly arrived Jewish refugees from Russia were being housed on Ward's Island, in New York City's East River. Lazarus had been visiting them and had gotten involved with charitable organizations helping the destitute new arrivals get a start in their new country.

The writer Constance Cary Harrison asked Lazarus to write a poem to help raise money for the Statue of Liberty pedestal fund. Lazarus, at first, was not interested in writing something on assignment.

Emma Lazarus Applied Her Social Conscience

Harrison later recalled that she encouraged Lazarus to change her mind by saying, “Think of that goddess standing on her pedestal down yonder in the bay, and holding her torch out to those Russian refugees of yours that you are so fond of visiting at Ward’s Island.”

Lazarus reconsidered and wrote the sonnet, “The New Colossus.” The opening of the poem refers to the Colossus of Rhodes, an ancient statue of a Greek titan. But Lazarus then refers to the statue which “shall” stand as a “mighty woman with a torch” and the “Mother of Exiles.”

Later in the sonnet are the lines which eventually became iconic:

"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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Thus in the mind of Lazarus the statue was not symbolic of liberty flowing outward from America, as Bartholdi envisioned, but rather a symbol of America being a refuge where those oppressed could come to live in liberty. Lazarus was no doubt thinking of the Jewish refugees from Russia she had been volunteering to assist at Ward's Island. And she surely understood that had she been born somewhere else, she may have faced oppression and suffering herself.

The Poem 'The New Colossus' Was Essentially Forgotten

On December 3, 1883, a reception was held at the Academy of Design in New York City to auction off a portfolio of writings and artwork to raise funds for the statue’s pedestal. The next morning the New York Times reported that a crowd which included J. P. Morgan, the famous banker, heard a reading of the poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.

The art auction did not raise as much money as the organizers had hoped. And the poem written by Emma Lazarus seems to have been forgotten. She tragically died of cancer on November 19, 1887, at the age of 38, less than four years after writing the poem. An obituary in the New York Times the following day praised her writing, with the headline calling her "An American Poet of Uncommon Talent." The obituary quoted some of her poems yet did not mention “The New Colossus.”

Thus, the sonnet was generally forgotten not long after it was written. Yet over time the sentiments expressed in words by Lazarus and the massive figure crafted of copper by Bartholdi would become inseparable in the public mind.

The Poem Was Revived by a Friend of Emma Lazarus

In May 1903, a friend of Lazarus, Georgina Schuyler, succeeded in having a bronze plaque containing the text of “The New Colossus” installed on an interior wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

By that time the statue had been standing in the harbor for nearly 17 years, and millions of immigrants had passed by it. And for those fleeing oppression in Europe, the Statue of Liberty did seem to be holding a torch of welcome.

Lady Liberty's Legacy

Over the following decades, especially in the 1920s, when the United States began to restrict immigration, the words of Lazarus took on deeper meaning. And whenever there is talk of closing America's borders, relevant lines from "The New Colossus" are always quoted in opposition.

Still, the poem and its connection to the statue unexpectedly became a contentious issue in the summer of 2017. Stephen Miller, an anti-immigrant adviser to President Donald Trump, sought to denigrate the poem and its connection to the statue.

Two years later, in the summer of 2019, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Trump administration, sparked a controversy by suggesting that the classic poem be edited. In a series of interviews on August 13, 2019, Cuccinelli said the poem should be changed to refer to immigrants who "can stand on their own two feet." He also noted that the Lazarus poem referred to "people coming from Europe," which critics interpreted as a sign of current bias toward non-white immigrants.

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McNamara, Robert. "A Poem by Emma Lazarus Changed the Meaning of Lady Liberty." ThoughtCo, Mar. 4, 2021, thoughtco.com/statue-of-liberty-symbolize-immigration-1774050. McNamara, Robert. (2021, March 4). A Poem by Emma Lazarus Changed the Meaning of Lady Liberty. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/statue-of-liberty-symbolize-immigration-1774050 McNamara, Robert. "A Poem by Emma Lazarus Changed the Meaning of Lady Liberty." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/statue-of-liberty-symbolize-immigration-1774050 (accessed March 28, 2023).