When the Goddess of Liberty was given to the United States, its donor’s agenda was to burnish France’s republican roots after the oppressive reign of Napoleon III and to celebrate the two nations’ commitment to the principles of liberty.
The only immigrants mentioned at the dedication in 1886 were the “illustrious descendants of the French nobility” who fought on behalf of the United States against Britain during the American Revolution.
But it was the words of a fourth-generation American whose father was a wealthy sugar refiner and whose great-great-uncle welcomed George Washington to Newport, R.I., that almost single-handedly transformed the monumental statue in New York Harbor into the “Mother of Exiles” that would symbolically beckon generations of immigrants.
Emma Lazarus’s poem only belatedly became synonymous with the Statute of Liberty, whose 125th birthday as a gift from France will be celebrated on Friday by the National Park Service.
Lazarus’s “New Colossus,” with its memorable appeal to “give me your tired, your poor,” was commissioned for a fund-raising campaign by artists and writers to pay for the statue’s pedestal.
But while the poem was critically acclaimed — the poet James Russell Lowell wrote that he liked it “much better than I like the Statue itself” because it “gives its subject a raison d’être which it wanted before quite as much as it wants a pedestal” — it was not even mentioned at the dedication ceremony.
Finally in 1903, after relentless lobbying by a friend of Lazarus who was descended from Alexander Hamilton, himself an immigrant, it was “affixed to the pedestal as an ex post facto inscription,” the art historian Marvin Trachtenberg wrote.
“Gradually, thereafter, the awareness spread not only of the significance of the lines of the poem but also of the significance of the aspect of national tradition it expressed,” another historian, Oscar Handlin, wrote. “Liberty was not simply the bond between ancient allies; nor was it only the symbol of liberal ideas of justice and freedom; it was also the motive force that had peopled the wilderness and made the country that emerged what it was.”
Barry Moreno, a historian of the statue for the National Park Service, recalled that it “was never built for immigrants.”