The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty
Today, the lines engraved in bronze on the base of the Statue of Liberty are almost as well-known as the statue itself. But the young woman who wrote “The New Colossus” and its famous verses—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—isn’t a household name, and not many know that the poem wasn’t originally destined for the statue itself.
“A POET OF RARE ORIGINAL POWER”
Born on July 22, 1849 to Esther and Moses Lazarus, Emma was the middle child in a group of seven. Her father—a rich sugar refiner who ranked among the founders of New York City’s Knickerbocker Club, an elite social group to which multiple Vanderbilts and Franklin Roosevelt would also later belong—was descended from some of the first Sephardic Jewish immigrants to land in the New World. (One of Emma’s great-great-uncles, Moses Seixas, is known for his powerful correspondence with George Washington on the topic of religious liberty.)
It was during her childhood in New York and Rhode Island that Lazarus fell in love with poetry, and in 1866, when she was 17, her father paid to have a collection of her original poems—plus some German language pieces that she’d translated into English—privately printed. The next year, the book was commercially published as Poems and Translations by Emma Lazarus Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen.
In 1868, Lazarus met—and impressed—one of her literary heroes, Ralph Waldo Emerson (then the most significant voice in America’s transcendentalism movement). The pair began corresponding, and Lazarus would come to regard Emerson as a good friend and mentor. “Mr. Emerson,” she once observed, “treats me with an almost fatherly affection.” In 1871, Lazarus published her second book, Admetus and Other Poems; she dedicated the titular poem “To My Friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.”
By that point, Lazarus’s work was starting to garner international acclaim. In its review of Admetus and Other Poems, the Illustrated London News raved that “Miss Lazarus … must be hailed by impartial literary criticism as a poet of rare original power.” Similar praise was showered upon later works, including the 1874 novel Alide: An Episode of Goethe’s Life and poems published in various periodicals. By decade’s end, Lazarus had emerged as a well-known and highly respected writer on both sides of the Atlantic. Before long, she’d use her newfound fame to champion the cause of the tired, poor, and "huddled masses" who desperately needed sanctuary.
RIOTS IN RUSSIA
On March 13, 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated in the streets of St. Petersburg when a team of revolutionaries calling themselves the Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) tossed a bomb at him. Since the Narodnaya Volya included at least one Jewish member, the czar’s death launched an epidemic of violent anti-Semitism throughout Russia and modern Ukraine. The situation got even worse in 1882, when Czar Alexander III canceled a huge number of land deeds held by Jews and forced half a million of them to relocate; he also forbade Jewish businessmen from trading on Sundays or Christian holidays, an edict that had immense financial consequences.
These measures and others like them kicked off a mass exodus of Russian Jews, with the vast majority heading to the United States. By 1914, around 1.5 million of these refugees had arrived in the U.S. [PDF].
Lazarus was extremely moved by their plight. “[Until] this cloud passes,” the poet said, “I have no thought, no passion, no desire, save for my own people.” In the 1880s, she dedicated a number of published essays and poems to Russia’s Jews and Jewish immigrants. When she wasn’t supporting them with her pen, she personally assisted any refugees she could find. At a Manhattan branch of the philanthropic Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, Lazarus gave free English lessons to newly arrived families. Elsewhere, she’d visit those whom immigration officials had quartered in overstuffed—and highly unsanitary—barracks on Ward’s Island.
While the poet was keeping herself busy in New York, a gift for the United States was being constructed more than 3600 miles away.
“THE GODDESS OF LIBERTY STANDING ON HER PEDESTAL”
In the 1860s, France had decided to celebrate her long and (mostly) peaceful relationship with the U.S. by sending an impressive new statue to the American people. Designed by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the tribute was to take the form of a giant, crowned woman clad in robes and hoisting a torch. Both nations agreed that the French would finance the statue itself while America secured the funding for its base, which would be built on Bedloe’s Island (now known as Liberty Island).
Part of the money the U.S. required was raised during a raffle at the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition. Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and other legendary artists donated works. Lazarus, too, was asked if she’d create something for the fundraiser. At first, she declined. “[I] could not possibly write verses to order,” she explained. However, a chairwoman by the name of Constance Cary Harrison convinced Lazarus to change her mind.
“Think of the goddess of liberty,” Harrison wrote in a letter to Lazarus, “standing on her pedestal yonder in the bay and holding the torch out to those refugees you are so fond of visiting at Ward’s Island.” The plea worked: Lazarus agreed to put a poem together. Two days later, she submitted a 105-word sonnet called “The New Colossus.”
When auction day came, Lazarus's poem sold for $1500 (about $37,000 today). After that, it was published as part of a souvenir literary portfolio that Harrison distributed. It had a number of fans, including poet James Russell Lowell, who told Lazarus “I liked your sonnet about the statue much better than I like the statue itself … your sonnet gives its subject its raison d’être which it wanted before quite as much as it wanted a pedestal.” But due to the sonnet’s very limited release, “The New Colossus” didn't attract a mainstream audience—at least, not at first. Unfortunately, Lazarus wouldn't live to see her poem get its due.
REDISCOVERING A MASTERPIECE
The Statue of Liberty herself finally arrived in New York Harbor on June 17, 1885. At the dedication ceremony over a year later, “The New Colossus” was not recited; in fact, the immigration issue was barely mentioned in any of the addresses given that day. At the time, the statue was seen more squarely as a symbol of the friendship between France and America, particularly as allies in the American Revolution; it was also seen as an affirmation of republican ideals and a celebration of the end of slavery. The explicit connection to immigrants, in the minds of the general public, came only later—in large part thanks to Lazarus's words.
Lazarus had spent that fall in Paris, and by the time she returned to New York the next year, she’d contracted what eventually became a terminal illness—suspected to be lymphoma. She died on November 19, 1887, at just 38. When she died, it looked like her poem might be little remembered. In its obituary for Lazarus, The New York Times neglected to reference or acknowledge the now-famous sonnet.
With Lazarus's death, it seemed that "The New Colossus" would fade into obscurity. But it didn't, thanks to the efforts of philanthropist and art aficionado Georgina Schuyler—one of Lazarus’s closest friends, and, as it happened, a direct descendant of Alexander Hamilton. In 1901, Schuyler started lobbying to have “The New Colossus” engraved onto a bronze plaque and affixed to Lady Liberty’s base as a tribute to her friend. Two years later, she got her wish. The sonnet was subsequently rediscovered during the 1930s by those pushing for the U.S. to welcome Jewish refugees then trying to flee Hitler.
As “The New Colossus” rose in popularity, so too did the woman who had penned it. In 1944, an organization called the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs was established. A progressive, social justice-oriented coalition, its activist members took to celebrating the poet’s birthday every year on Liberty Island. Since then, Lazarus has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and her best-known poem has been frequently cited in American debates over immigration.
Today, Lady Liberty and “The New Colossus” are joined at the hip, and we're more likely to remember the statue as a welcome to immigrants than as a tribute to the French-American relationship. To quote biographer Esther Schor, “You can’t think of the statue without hearing the words Emma Lazarus gave her.”
This story originally ran in 2017.