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.

Sequoyah: The Man Who Saved the Cherokee Language

Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sequoyah was fascinated by books and letters, enchanted by the way people could divine meaning from ink-stained scribbles on a written page. Born in the 1760s in what is now Tennessee and trained as a silversmith and blacksmith, the Cherokee man never learned how to read or write in English, but he always knew that literacy and power were intertwined.

During most of Sequoyah's lifetime, the Cherokee language was entirely oral. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, a written language may have existed centuries earlier, but the script was supposedly lost as the tribe journeyed east across the continent. Sometime around 1809, Sequoyah began working on a new system to put the Cherokee language back on the page. He believed that, by inventing an alphabet, the Cherokee could share and save the stories that made their way of life unique.

At first, some Cherokee disliked Sequoyah’s idea. White people were encroaching further on their land and culture, and they were resistant to anything that resembled assimilation. Some skeptics saw Sequoyah’s attempts to create a written language as just another example of the tribe becoming more like the oncoming white settlers—in other words, another example of the tribe losing a grip on its culture and autonomy.

Sequoyah, however, saw it differently: Rather than destroy his culture, he saw the written word as a way to save it. According to Britannica, he became convinced that the secret of white people's growing power was directly tied to their use of written language, which he believed was far more effective than collective memories or word-of-mouth. In the words of Sequoyah, "The white man is no magician." If they could do it, so could he.

Sequoyah became further convinced of this in 1813, after he helped the U.S Army fight the Creek War in Georgia. For months, he watched soldiers send letters to their families and saw war officers deliver important commands in written form. He found the capability to communicate across space and time profoundly important.

Sequoyah's first attempt to develop a written language, however, was relatively crude by comparison. He tried to invent a logographic system, designing a unique character for every word, but quickly realized he was creating too much unnecessary work for himself. (According to historian April Summit's book, Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, his wife may have attempted to burn an early version of his alphabet, calling it witchcraft.) So Sequoyah started anew, this time constructing his language from letters he found in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as with some Arabic numerals.

Sequoyah became more reclusive and obsessive, spending hour upon hour working on his alphabet. According to the official website of the Cherokee Nation, people outside his family began whispering that he was meddling with sorcery. By 1821, Sequoyah was too busy to pay the gossip any mind: He was teaching his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, how to use the system.

As one story goes, Sequoyah was eventually charged with witchcraft and brought to trial before a town chief, who tested Sequoyah’s claims by separating him and his daughter and asking them to communicate through their so-called writing system. By the trial’s end, everybody involved was convinced that Sequoyah was telling the truth—the symbols truly were a distillation of Cherokee speech. Rather than punish Sequoyah, the officials asked him a question: Can you teach us how to read?

Once accepted by the Cherokee, Sequoyah’s 86 character alphabet—which is technically called a syllabary—was widely studied. Within just a few years, thousands of people would learn how to read and write, with many Cherokee communities becoming more literate than the surrounding white populations. It wasn’t long before the Cherokee language began appearing in books and newspapers: First published in 1828, The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper printed in the United States.

Sam Houston, the eventual governor of Texas, admired Sequoyah's achievement and reportedly told him, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." Today, while the Cherokee language is now considered endangered by UNESCO, Sequoyah's system remains a landmark innovation—and a source of hope for the future.

You can visit Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin, which still stands in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has also been designated a Literary Landmark.

Newly Uncovered Galileo Letter Details How He Tried to Avoid the Inquisition

Galileo Before The Papal Tribunal by Robert Henry. Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Galileo Before The Papal Tribunal by Robert Henry. Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Galileo Galilei was one of the Roman Catholic Inquisition’s most famous targets. As a result of his outspoken support for the theory that all the planets, Earth included, revolve around the Sun, the Catholic Church charged him with heresy and he spent the last years of his life under house arrest. Galileo was well aware that he was on the Church’s hit list, and a newly discovered letter shows that at one point, he tried to tone down his ideas to avoid persecution, according to Nature and Ars Technica.

The letter in question, written in 1613, solves a long-held mystery for Galileo scholars. It was found in the library of the Royal Society, where it has been for at least 250 years.

Galileo’s beef with the Catholic Church came about because of his support for heliocentrism—the idea that the solar system centers around the Sun—as advocated in Nicolaus Copernicus’s book De Revolutionibus. Galileo’s scientific writings clearly endorsed Copernicus’s theory of the world, including in personal correspondence that was widely disseminated, and in some cases, he directly questioned the scientific merit of Biblical passages.

In 1613, Galileo wrote to a friend and former student named Benedetto Castelli who was then teaching mathematics at the University of Pisa. The letter was a long treatise on Galileo’s thoughts on Copernicus’s ideas and religion, arguing that science and astronomy should not be overpowered by religious doctrin . (He would later expand this into his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.) As with many of Galileo’s writings at the time, the letter was copied and disseminated widely, and eventually, a friar named Niccolò Lorini forwarded it to the Inquisition in Rome in 1615.

This is where things get tricky. Galileo claimed that the version of the letter Lorini sent was doctored to be more inflammatory. He sent a less controversial version of the letter to a friend, saying that it was the original document and should be forwarded to the Vatican, essentially to clear his name. But scholars have never been able to be totally sure if he was telling the truth about the letter being doctored.

This newly discovered letter suggests that he was lying, and that he himself was looking to tone down his rhetoric to appease the Catholic Church and keep authorities from quashing the spread of heliocentric ideas. The original copy found in the Royal Society archives shows changes to the wording in what appears to be Galileo’s handwriting. The seven-page letter, signed “G.G.,” includes changes like swapping the word “false” for the more slippery “look different from the truth,” changing “concealing” to “veiling,” and other edits that seek to tone down the rhetoric that inflamed Church leaders. The wording and handwriting corresponds to similar writing by Galileo at the time. Based on this finding, it seems that Galileo did seek to make his ideas more palatable to the Catholic Church in the hopes of escaping persecution by the Inquisition.

Discovered on a research trip by science historian Salvatore Ricciardo of Italy's University of Bergamo, the letter may have been overlooked in the Royal Society archives because it was cataloged as being dated October 21, 1613 rather than the date it actually bears, December 21, 1613. However, it’s unclear how it came to the Royal Society in the first place. The document is the subject of a forthcoming article by Ricciardo and his colleagues in the Royal Society journal Notes and Records, according to Nature.

The minor changes Galileo made did not successfully hold off the Church’s crackdown on heliocentrism. In 1616, the Inquisition ordered Galileo to stop teaching or defending the theory, and several of his books were subsequently banned. He would stand trial again almost two decades later, in 1633, on suspicion of holding heretical thoughts. He was found guilty and sentenced to house arrest, where he remained until his death in 1642.

[h/t Ars Technica]

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