The Mother of Exiles: The profound significance of the Statue of Liberty and “The New Colossus”

The American Jewish Historical Society, located in the neighborhood of Chelsea, holds a very special book in its collection — the handwritten journal of Emma Lazarus.

We got to examine the journal last year for our episode The Huddled Masses: Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty about the creation of her most famous work — “The New Colossus.”

If you’d like to flip through the journal yourself, you won’t need to go down to the AJHS (although it’s well worth a visit). They’ve kindly provided a digital version so you can see her work in her own hand.

The Statue in 1891

Lazarus wrote this poem in 1883 for a special benefit, raising funds for the construction of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal.

At first, she had a very specific group of immigrants in mind when she began crafting her poem. Lazarus was from a Sephardic Jewish family, well assimilated into New York society. Yet a significant number of newly arriving immigrants were Ashkenazi Jews who spoke Yiddish, fleeing anti-Semitic violence in Europe.

By the time Lazarus had completed her poem, “The New Colossus” had thrown its arms even wider. She describes the statue not as a welcoming beacon just for Jewish refugees, but for all those considered “exiles,” “homeless” or “wretched refuse.”

“From her beacon-hand/Glows world-wide welcome” — The statue may be facing southeast towards the opening of the harbor. But according to Lazarus, her welcome extends in all directions.

However, when this poem was completed in 1883, it served only as a prescription for the Statue’s purpose.

Lazarus died in 1887, about a year after the Statue of Liberty was dedicated. While “The New Colossus” was at risk of being forgotten, Lazarus herself seemed to understand its importance, placing it on the first page of her written journal.

By 1903, the Statue of Liberty had indeed fulfilled the words of Emma Lazarus. Millions had entered New York Harbor and caught sight of the statue before anything else.

All hopes and ambitions, bottled up during a long sea voyage, burst forth upon seeing this unusual, otherworldly giant.

The original intention of the Statue of Liberty by its French creator (author Édouard de Laboulaye) was to celebrate the success of American democracy, the warm friendship between France and the United States and even the abolition of slavery. Sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi imagined its grand scale would place America in the company of great empires.

But mass immigration of millions into the United States demanding a new meaning for the statue, overshadowing all the original intentions. She was now the embodiment of promise for millions who had nothing.

In 1903, a bronze plaque featuring the words of “The New Colossus” was placed on the pedestal. That original plaque, pictured above, can be seen in the Statue of Liberty Museum today.

For more information, listen to our 2018 podcast The Huddled Masses: Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty.

A copy of the original manuscript of “The New Colossus”. From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York