Question: How did the Statue of Liberty become a symbol of immigration?
When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886, the ceremonial speeches had nothing to do with immigrants arriving in America.
And the sculptor who created the enormous statue, Fredric-Auguste Bartholdi, did not connect the statue with immigration. He envisioned it as a symbol of liberty spreading outward from America.
So how and why did the statue become an iconic symbol of immigration?
The Statue of Liberty really became a symbol of immigration because of a poem written in honor of the statue, "The New Colossus," a sonnet by Emma Lazarus.
The sonnet was actually forgotten during the late 1800s, yet over time the words of Emma Lazarus and the statue created by Bartholdi would become inseparable in the public mind.
Poet Emma Lazarus Was Asked to Write a Poem in Honor of the Statue of Liberty
Before the Statue of Liberty was completed and shipped to the United States for assembly, a campaign was organized to raise funds to build the pedestal on Bedloe’s Island for the enormous statue. Donations were very slow in coming, and in the early 1880s it appeared that the statue may never actually be assembled in New York. There were even rumors that another city, perhaps Boston, may wind up with the statue.
One of the fundraisers was to be an art show. And the poet Emma Lazarus, who was respected in the artistic community in New York City, was asked to write a poem that could be auctioned to raise funds for the pedestal.
Emma Lazarus was a native New Yorker, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family with roots going back several generations in New York City. Yet she had become very concerned about the plight of Jews being persecuted in a pogrom in Russia.
Lazarus was involved with organizations offering assistance to Jewish refugees who had arrived in America and would need help getting a start in a new country. She was known to visit Ward’s Island, where newly arrived Jewish refugees from Russia were housed.
The writer Constance Cary Harrison asked Lazarus, who was 34 at the time, 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 to Her Poem About the Statue of Liberty
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 Collosus 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.
Emma 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, at the age of 38, less than four years after writing the poem. An obituary in the New York Times praised her writing, with the headline calling her "An American Poet of Uncommon Talent," but did not mention “The New Colossus.”
The Poem By Emma Lazarus Was Revived By Her Friend
In May 1903 a friend of Emma 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.
Over the following decades, especially in the 1920s, when the United States began to restrict immigration, the words of Emma 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.
The Statue of Liberty, though not conceived as a symbol of immigration, is now always linked in the public mind with arriving immigrants, thanks to the words of Emma Lazarus.