The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty

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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”

The New York Historical Society, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

9 Other Things That Happened on July 4

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iStock/LPETTET

Of course we know that July 4 is Independence Day in the U.S. But lots of other things have happened on that date as well. Here are just a few of them:

1. Three former presidents died.

On July 4, 1826, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—America's second and third presidents, respectively—both passed away. The two politicians had a love-hate relationship, and Adams's last words were supposedly, "Thomas Jefferson survives." (He didn't know that Jefferson had passed away a few hours earlier.) Exactly five years later, on July 4, 1831, fifth U.S. President James Monroe died in New York City.

2. Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond.

On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau began his two-year living experiment at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts.

3. Alice Liddell first heard the story of Alice in Wonderland.

On July 4, 1862, little Alice Liddell listened to a story told by Lewis Carroll during a boat trip on the Thames ... it would later become, of course, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It was published exactly three years later—on July 4, 1865.

4. Two famous advice columnists were born.

On July 4, 1918, twin sisters Esther Pauline and Pauline Esther Friedman were born. Today they're better known as Ann Landers and Dear Abby.

5. George Steinbrenner came into the world.

On July 4, 1930, future Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was born (and presumably fired the doctor immediately).

6. Lou Gehrig delivered his retirement speech.

On July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig gave his famous retirement speech at Yankee Stadium after being diagnosed with ALS. He tells the crowd that he considers himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

7. The Zodiac Killer killed for the first time. (As far as we know.)

On July 4, 1968, the Zodiac Killer murdered his first victims (that we know of) at Lake Herman Road in Benicia, California.

8. Koko was born.

On July 4, 1971, Koko, the sign-language gorilla, was born.

9. Bob Ross passed away.

On July 4, 1995, Bob Ross died, and all over the world, Happy Little Trees were a little less happy.

This list first ran in 2008 and was updated for 2019.

16 Savage Teddy Roosevelt Insults

George C. Beresford, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
George C. Beresford, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Theodore Roosevelt had a way with words. Over his lifetime, the eminently quotable president and author popularized many witty turns of phrase. And though he wasn’t fond of swearing, Roosevelt didn't always speak softly, either—he was capable of delivering a savage insult when he felt it was appropriate (though usually he saved his irritation for letters and didn't deliver the insult to his enemy’s face). Here are just a few of them.

1. “An amiable old fuzzy-wuzzy with sweetbread brains.”

This insult was leveled at an anonymous Supreme Court Justice who dared to cross Roosevelt.

2. “A well-meaning, pin-headed, anarchistic crank, of hirsute and slab-sided aspect.”

Said of the Populist Senator from Kansas William Alfred Peffer, who was indeed hairy, tall, and lean.

3. “The shifty, adroit, and selfish logothete in the White House.”

According to historian Edmund Morris, in 1915 Edith Wharton had asked Roosevelt to visit Europe and report on what was happening to the French in World War I. But Roosevelt proclaimed that he would only go when he could fight, which he considered unlikely under President Woodrow Wilson, who Roosevelt said "cannot be kicked into war." The former president didn't have kind words for Wilson's supporters, either; he called them "flubdubs and mollycoddles."

4. “A cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.”

When he wrote this, Roosevelt was insulting President Benjamin Harrison, who had appointed Roosevelt as a reform commissioner because he owed TR a favor. Harrison quickly came to regret it: Soon after Roosevelt was appointed, he investigated Indianapolis Postmaster William Wallace … Harrison’s best friend. 

5. “[A] little emasculated mass of inanity.”

Roosevelt said this of novelist Henry James. James, for his part, said that Roosevelt was “dangerous,” and “the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding Noise.”

6. “The most intolerably slow of all men who ever adored red tape.”

This isn’t the nicest thing to say about one of your colleagues—in this case, one of TR’s fellow Civil Service Commissioners (and Civil War veteran), Charles Lyman. According to Lyman’s Men of Mark in America entry, published in 1906, “While Mr. Roosevelt's work and attention were largely given to the investigation of abuses and violations of the law and rules, and to the education of public opinion in favor of the reform, through public addresses and the press, Mr. Lyman's work was almost wholly administrative and constructive, his purpose and effort being to establish the reform on a sound and conservative basis and to develop it according to the more obvious and pressing needs of the public service.”

7. “A professional yodeler, a human trombone.”

Said of William Jennings Bryan, then Secretary of State to Woodrow Wilson.

8. “That leprous spot upon our civilization.”

Roosevelt didn’t have kind words for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, who dared “[portray] me as attacking labor when I enforce the law as regards Miller in the Printing Office,” Roosevelt wrote to Harrison Gray Otis in 1903. Earlier, the paper had published an interview in which Roosevelt supposedly called the paper’s coverage of the lead up to the Spanish-American War “most commendable and accurate.” The paper’s coverage was actually full of inaccuracies, and according to Roosevelt, he never gave that interview—and loudly denied those words of praise.

9. “Puzzlewit,” “Fathead,” “Brains less than a guinea pig.”

Roosevelt reserved some of his harshest words for his hand-picked successor. Roosevelt and William Howard Taft had a falling out; eventually, after challenging Taft for the Republican nomination (saying, "I'll name the compromise candidate. He'll be me. I'll name the compromise platform. It will be our platform”) Roosevelt ran against Taft in 1912 as a member of the Progressive party, a.k.a. the Bull Moose Party, and that’s when the gloves came off.

And in case the guinea pig reference seems random, Roosevelt once explained that “Just as machinery can be expressed in terms of horsepower, so some intellect can be expressed in terms of guinea pig power,” and that certain accusations against him “can only be heeded by men with brains of about three-guinea-pig power.” After which the St. Louis Dispatch opined, "Col. Theodore Roosevelt has further enriched the language which so many of his phrases now adorn by producing the following conjunctive description: ‘Three-guinea-pig-power brain.’ This is considered vastly superior to Woodrow Wilson’s ‘single track mind’ phrase, which had a brief vogue.”

10. “A flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and the common in him."

Another insult aimed at Taft.

11. “The true old-style Jeffersonian of the barbaric blatherskite variety.”

According to Merriam-Webster, a blatherskite is “a person who blathers a lot.” In this case, Roosevelt was referring to Mississippi Congressman John Sharp Williams, who served as the Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives from 1903 until 1908.

12. “He is evidently a maniac, morally no less than mentally.”

TR was a man of morals, and he used these harsh words in reference to his brother, Elliott Roosevelt, who had an affair out of wedlock that resulted in a pregnancy. In his autobiography, Teddy wrote, “Moreover, public opinion and the law should combine to hunt down the ‘flagrant man swine’ who himself hunts down poor or silly or unprotected girls.”

13. “[A] hypocritical haberdasher … An ill-constitutioned creature, oily, but with bristles sticking up through the oil.”

Said of Postmaster General John Wanamaker, after Wanamaker refused to intervene when Milwaukee Postmaster George H. Paul (more on him in a bit!) had “dismissed Hamilton Shidy for treachery and insubordination,” according to Edmund Morris. Shidy had testified against Paul in corruption proceedings.

14. “About as thorough-paced a scoundrel as I ever saw. An oily-Gammon, church-going specimen.”

Here, Roosevelt was calling Milwaukee Postmaster George H. Paul a fatty ham in addition to a scoundrel. (Paul would eventually resign in 1889.)

15. "Too small game to shoot twice."

Roosevelt leveled this dig at William J. Long, after the Wilderness Ways author attacked the president for giving an interview in which Roosevelt had accused Long of being a “nature faker.”

16. “He seems to have a brain of about eight-guinea-pig-power ... it is useless to have a worthy creature of mutton-suet consistency like the good Sir Mortimer.”

Written in a letter to Whitelaw Reid. Sir Mortimer Durand was a shy and formal British Ambassador to the United States from 1903-1906 (he also lent his name to the Durand line between Pakistan and Afghanistan). The diplomat was a huge fan of Roosevelt; Cecil Spring Rice wrote that “My chief (Durand) thinks Teddy R. the greatest man in the world and has treated me with immense respect since I let on that I correspond with Teddy. I tell him stories and he listens open-mouthed.” But Durand couldn’t keep up with Roosevelt, either in conversation or physically. Once, when the two went for a walk, Durand recounted in his diary that Roosevelt “made me struggle through bushes and over rocks for two hours and a half, at an impossible speed, till I was so done that I could hardly stand.” Yup, that sounds like Teddy!

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