Emma Lazarus, “Mother of Exiles”:
As millions pour into the United States, it is worth recounting what was happening 100 years ago. It is worth remembering the history of the volatile immigration issue in the United States. One hundred years ago, the Statue of Liberty was at the center of the debate.
The Statue of Liberty was designed by Frédéric Bartholdi and dedicated on October 28, 1886. Bartholdi was inspired by French law professor and politician Édouard René de Laboulaye, who commented in 1865 that any monument erected in the name of American independence would properly be a joint project of the French and American peoples. American liberty had been attained with the joint efforts of the French and American armies, namely in the decisive Revolutionary War battle of Yorktown. Bartholdi and Laboulaye considered decided to represent liberty with Libertas, a goddess from ancient Rome worshiped mostly by emancipated slaves.
We must recall that Bartholdi created the Statue at a time when immigrants coming to the United States arrived by boat. Airplanes had yet to be invented and the Mexican-American border was yet to be decided. Most of the Western territories were yet to be States. The Statue served as a beacon both metaphorically and literally for the seemingly unending number of ships carrying passengers to the shores of the New World in order to start their lives anew. A sonnet was solicited by William Maxwell Evarts as a donation to an auction, conducted by the “Art Loan Fund Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal” in order to gather funds. Emma Lazarus wrote the sonnet aptly titled “The New Colossus”.
Emma Lazarus was an American Jewish poet born in New York City. Lazarus was the fourth of seven children of Moshe Lazarus and Esther Nathan, Portuguese Sephardic Jews whose families had been settled in New York since the colonial period. Lazarus began to be more interested in her Jewish ancestry after she heard of the Russian pogroms in the early 1880s. This led Lazarus to write articles on the subject. In winter 1882, multitudes of destitute Ashkenazi Jews immigrated from the Russian Pale of Settlement to New York; Lazarus taught technical education to help them become self-supporting. Lazarus is also known as an important forerunner of the Zionist movement. She argued for the creation of a Jewish homeland thirteen years before Theodor Herzl began to use the term Zionism.
Emma Lazarus’s sonnet and the Statue of Liberty resurrected the spirit which had birthed a nation, but had since been seriously challenged. Individuals of all walks of life, some puritanical and some criminal, had left Europe for the opportunity to start anew with the freedom that virgin land, free from governmental structure, provided. Those first ships to arrive in the first settlements were populated with slaves, ministers, criminals and common folk. The founding documents of the United States enshrined its shores as the promised land of opportunity, or more precisely, “equal opportunity” regardless of lineage. The masses left the stratified class system of the aristocracies for this mythic land of abundance and freedom. Americans had fought for this liberty, and Frenchmen like Lafayette had been crucial to the victory. A generation that made monuments instead of movies demanded that this unprecedented accomplishment be commemorated by an appropriate marker:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!
The open immigration period of the United States would come to an end after the Civil War, as millions of ex-slaves flooded North, and even larger populations of Eastern Europeans, Italians, Irish, and others washed up on the Eastern coast. Millions upon millions of people were taking the precarious risk of leaving the world they knew for nothing more than the hope inherent in the promise of unhindered “pursuit of happiness.”
It seems that the North, which had fought a war to end slavery, went into culture shock once all these foreign faces crowded into their cities. The elites, the movers and shakers, the money men on the shores whom claimed to be the legitimate blood descendants of the original colonists were actively trying to keep out this diverse mix of people. It was, after all, those from the ivory towers of the North that would at this juncture become the leaders of the International eugenics movement, and head up the campaign to shut down the influx of foreigners. They would ultimately win out with a series of major legislative accomplishments, namely the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act. The 1924 Act was the product of the Immigration Restriction League, which was made up of Ivy League graduates and professors. At an age when isolationism and xenophobia ran rampant, enshrining the tallest structure in the horizon with an invitation to the “huddled masses,” the “wretched refuse,” the “tired” and the “poor” certainly took some chutzpah on the part of Emma Lazarus. If it were up to the North-Eastern elite of the time, the lid would have been bolted shut on the “melting pot” of the world.
Due to the troubled political situation in France, work on the statue did not commence until the early 1870s. In 1875, Laboulaye proposed that the French finance the statue and the Americans provide the pedestal and the site. Emma Lazarus’s sonnet appears on a bronze plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Fundraising proved difficult, especially for the Americans, and by 1885 work on the pedestal was threatened due to lack of funds. Publisher Joseph Pulitzer of the World newspaper initiated a drive for donations to complete the project, and the campaign inspired more than 120,000 contributors, most of whom gave less than a dollar. In the end, Emma Lazarus won out. History proved her right and the Ivy League elitists wrong. The permanence of the monument forever seared the words she crafted to preserve the American Spirit for posterity in the minds of a nation, and the world.
EXCERPT: This chapter did not make the final edit of “From a ‘Race of Masters’ to a ‘Master Race’: 1948-1848” and is presented here with all of its defects and imperfections.