“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!”
Against the backdrop of our polarized national debate, the dominance of false news, and considerable anxiety regarding what a Trump era presidency will bring, these strains from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus” retain real significance. Lazarus wrote the poem in 1883 to raise money for the pedestal on which the French gift would be mounted. Aside from this effort, the poem had no connection to the statue for 20 years and was largely forgotten. But a friend of Lazarus’s brought it back to public attention, and in 1903 the poem was engraved on a plaque mounted on the inner wall of the pedestal. Significantly, it now captured the meaning of the Statue of Liberty itself—capturing, we might say, what Lazarus and others felt made America great! As such, these words continue to reveal a paradox in American history. On the one hand, Lazarus wrote her poem at a time when the United States was emerging on the world stage— a burgeoning industrial power with seeming unlimited resources, a continental breadth connecting the earth’s two major oceans, and a haven promising democratic freedom for all. American democracy would lead and guide the world. On the other hand, the nascent empire was also being built to support a white Protestant majority that harbored huge anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Asian sentiments. In addition, Jim Crow apartheid flourished, as did the cultural abuse of Native Americans and other “foreigners.” And as America industrialized, the miserable conditions inflicting workers of all cultural backgrounds rose exponentially. The Captains of Industry remained largely indifferent to the millions now inhabiting overcrowded cities, living in squalor and working in sweat shops, assembly lines, or unregulated construction sites for meager wages, not to mention those working in mines and forests and oceans.
For Lazarus, America’s greatness was not grounded in the pomp and circumstance of the empire-builder’s swagger. Read the less-well-known opening lines of the sonnet in which Lazarus rejects the macho image of the Colossus of Rhodes for Liberty’s maternal symbolism.
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 lightening, 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.
What makes America “Great!” is not the brazenness and pomp of empires, the military reach, the economic dominance, and the protection of interests. Greatness lies in the maternal heart that beats for others and welcomes them. America the “Mother of exiles” attending to the tired, the poor, the displaced and the homeless, those yearning to breathe free. “Don’t just tolerate them,” says Liberty. “Send them to me!” And in doing so, she seems to imply, America aligns herself with the One who spoke these words of hospitality: “Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden. And I will give you rest.” Something perhaps to ponder in the New Year. God bless.