Statue of Liberty - Liberty Enlightening the World

by Fred Elbel

The Statue of Liberty was erected in 1886, when world population was little more than one billion and United States population was 60 million. Many do not realize that the Statue of Liberty was a gift to the United States from France, with the title, "Liberty Enlightening the World". The statue and its symbolism had nothing to do with immigration, but rather hope that the rest of the world would adopt Democracy. The Emma Lazurus plaque (it is not chiseled in the base), "send me your huddled masses" was added ten years later during the immigration peak of that age.

The sonnet, "New Colossus", was written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 as part of a literary campaign to raise funds for the completion of the Statue's pedestal. Not much attention was paid to it until the tide of immigration surged at the turn of the century. Proceeds that were raised from its auction were used to complete the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. This plaque memorialized the sonnet in 1903 and was placed on the inner wall of the Statue's pedestal. It currently is displayed inside the Statue of Liberty museum.

Since then, U.S. population has expanded by a factor of five.

Roberto Suroclarified the misinterpretation of the Lazarus poem in his July 5, 2009 Washington Post article, The Statue of Liberty's Real Stand:

... Let's get rid of The Poem.

I'm talking about "Give me your tired, your poor..." -- that poem, "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, which sometimes seems to define us as a nation even more than Lady Liberty herself.

Inscribed on a small brass plaque mounted inside the statue's stone base, the poem is an appendix, added belatedly, and it can safely be removed, shrouded or at least marked with a big asterisk. We live in a different era of immigration, and the schmaltzy sonnet offers a dangerously distorted picture of the relationship between newcomers and their new land.

The most enduring meaning conveyed by Lady Liberty has nothing do with immigration, and I say let's go back to that. The statue's original name is "Liberty Enlightening the World," and the tablet the lady holds in her left hand reads "July IV, MDCCLXXVI" to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Lady Liberty celebrates U.S. political values as a force for the betterment of humanity, as well as the bond of friendship among freedom-loving nations. That's a powerful and worthy message...

Born into a wealthy family that traced its roots to New York City's earliest Jewish residents, Lazarus was a social activist as well as an accomplished writer. She lent a hand at the station on Wards Island where destitute immigrants were detained, and she helped set up a training school in the tenements. When Lazarus wrote the poem in 1883, she was a prominent advocate for Jews fleeing the pogroms of imperial Russia.

It took a long time for Lady Liberty and the huddled masses to become completely intertwined. Most of the early mythologizing of the statue played on its patriotic appeal. The poem, written for a charity auction that raised money for the statue's pedestal, was never commercially published and got no mention at the statue's grand opening in 1886. Lazarus died a year later at age 38. In 1903, her friend from New York high society, Georgina Schuyler, had the plaque made to honor Lazarus. There was no ceremony when it was placed on a stairway landing inside the pedestal. For decades it went largely unnoticed, a memorial to a writer and reformer who died young rather than a defining inscription for the statue...

Look back with caution is my advice. Bad poetry makes for bad policy...

Also see this article: A Symbol Transformed - The Statue of Liberty, by Elizabeth Koed, The Social Contract, Summer 2005:

When French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi assembled his 152-foot statue atop a pedestal on small Bedloe's Island in 1886, however, the symbol we so readily acknowledge today did not exist. Rather, this gift from the French nation celebrated the successful American experiment in republicanism. It was a gesture of friendship and alliance. It commemorated the ties that bound the two nations together as they strove to achieve their goals of liberty and equality. But over Liberty's first century, this original intent has been transformed into quite a different symbol. Although attributed to the familiar sonnet by Emma Lazarus, the "Mother of Exiles" symbol has been largely the product of, first, coincidence, and then of many decades of gradual incorporation as the statue became a familiar image that could be used for many purposes. The symbol has strayed far from the original idea. As historian David McCullough explained, "The idea, of course, is liberty, and liberty is what we Americans have always wanted first of all. It was what the Revolution was fought for, what the country was founded for. 'Hail, Liberty!' was the cry on the day the statue was unveiled." Unfortunately, by the time Liberty turned 100 those lofty ideals were all but lost, replaced in the ceremonial pomp by glitzy tributes to America's immigrant population and the "golden doors."


SteynPost #19: Liberty and Immigration, Mark Steyn, August 8, 2017:

Mark Steyn discusses how the Statue of liberty is not about importing immigrants, but rather exporting liberty to the world. Americans tacked a third-rate poem to the base and turned it into an icon of mass immigration.

Steyn's conclusion at 24:00 is particularly worth watching:

I wish more people recognized lines from the rape of the lock or the Ancient Mariner or Hiawatha, but it is disturbing and depressing that the one poem everybody seems wedded to in the year 2017 is a bit of third-rate doggerel that has unfortunately perverted the symbolism of one of the great statues of all time. Liberty Enlightening the World. We should be in the business of broadcasting the big idea of Liberty saying, "Here it is. You like a piece of it why not try introducing it in your country." It's about exporting the big idea, not about importing the world to subvert that idea here at home."



Emma Lazarus' Poem Was Little Known Until WWII, by Steve Sailer, Unz Review, August 16, 2019:

...Uh, wasn’t it Lazarus’s friend from Richmond, VA, Constance Cary Harrison, the Betsy Ross of the Confederate Battle Flag, who persuaded Lazarus to write it? Lazarus’s family had had a lot of business ties to the Confederacy....

From Slate:The Complicated History of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus”:

So she writes this poem, and this is where she audaciously brings the demand to the American people on behalf of all the “tired and poor … the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” …

1882 was also the year of the Immigration Act of 1882, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. I’ve been through Emma Lazarus’ letters many times, and I don’t see her commenting about either piece of legislation. I’ve looked. …

So, basically, Emma Lazarus was concerned about the anti-Semitic pogroms that began in Russia in 1881, and not interested in other people’s problems. Seems like sensible ethnocentrism to me....

Google’s Ngram of usage of “wretched refuse” in books shows it took off in 1939-1943, and then stayed at the same level through 2007 (the last usable date in the Ngram archive)....

So the fame of “The New Colossus” was a World War II thing: This huge 1939-1943 spike probably had to do with concern for refugees from Naziism. E.g., the 1942 movie Casablanca is about refugees.

Okay, that finally makes sense: the poem’s fame traces to the Casablanca era, a time of highly quotable, mass market, vaguely leftist schmaltz.

Basically, the poem was written in response to the Russian anti-Semitic pogroms of 1881 and finally became famous following German anti-Semitic Kristallnacht pogrom of late 1938.

So, that means the poem isn’t really about immigrants, it’s about refugees. It was written about Jewish refugees from anti-Semitic violence and it became permanently famous during another era of anti-Semitic violence generating refugees....


The Statue of Liberty stands firm on liberty, not a poem, enlightening the world, CAIRCO.

Time to Remove Socialist “Huddled Masses” Plaque from Statue of Liberty, by Selwyn Duke, Canada Free Press, February 2, 2018.

Statue of Liberty Declares: STOP IMMIGRATION!, by Tim Murray, April 2, 2019.