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'Give me your tired, your poor': The Statue of Liberty at 125

Photo by Mr G's Travels/Flickr (Creative Commons)

On the occasion of the 125th birthday of the Statue of Liberty, it's only fitting to share the 1883 sonnet by poet Emma Lazarus that's inscribed on a bronze plaque in the statue's pedestal, mounted there in 1903.

The poem itself, titled "The New Colossus" (its title refers to the Colossus of Rhodes) has an interesting story. The statue was a gift from the French government, intended to embody the spirit of democracy, not to welcome the ships that at the time carried immigrants from Europe.

It was the immigrants themselves who began associating the statue with freedom and opportunity, wrote Sam Roberts in the New York Times this week, writing letters home about "this wonderful goddess in New York Harbor" they encountered upon arrival. Lazarus, who accepted a commission to write the poem, had visited newly arrived immigrants in shelters. A descendant of Jewish immigrants herself, she was moved by the stories of Russian Jews who had fled persecution, seeking liberty in the United States.

And thus the Statue of Liberty became the patroness of immigrants, an identity crystallized in Lazarus' poem:

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-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


The wide-open "golden door" had already begun slowly closing, of course, by the time the poem on the statue was dedicated. A series of early immigration restrictions, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and culminating with the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed tight quotas on who could enter legally, dramatically changed what in the 19th century had been a fairly open-door approach toward immigration. The rest is history.
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