Emma Lazarus

America had always been a magnet to Europeans, at first primarily from the British Isles, and then from the continent. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, improvements in travel, combined with political upheaval and economic difficulties, led to a significant increase in the number of people crossing the Atlantic to seek opportunity in the United States. Between 1820 and 1920, approximately 34 million persons immigrated to the United States, three-fourths of them staying permanently.

For many of these newcomers, their first glimpse of America was the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. The statue, sculpted by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, had been conceived of as a gift of friendship from the people of France marking the two nations' commitment to liberty. France provided $400,000 for the 151-foot statue, and a fundraising drive in the United States netted $270,000 for the 89-foot pedestal. Ironically, none of the speeches at the dedication of the monument in October 1886 even mentioned immigrants; President Grover Cleveland spoke about Franco-American friendship and American ideals.

But the Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus saw the statue as a beacon to the world. A poem she wrote to help raise money for the pedestal, and which is carved on that pedestal, captured what the statue came to mean to the millions who migrated to the United States seeking freedom, and who have continued to come unto this day.

As many modern scholars have noted, these words have an air of condescension, but the fact is that many native-born Americans and immigrants at the time did see themselves just as Lazarus portrayed them -- wretched, nameless, "tempest-tost." For them Europe meant poverty and persecution, and America meant democracy and opportunity. "Other lands," wrote the Polish emigré Henry Sienkiewicz, "grant only asylum; this land recognizes the immigrant as a son and grants him rights." When they were "sickened at last of poverty, bigotry and kings," wrote another immigrant, "there was always America!"

For further reading: Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted (1951; rev. ed. 1973); John Bodnar, The Transplanted (1985); Philip Taylor, The Distant Magnet (1971); John Higham, Strangers in the Land (1955); Leonard Dinnerstein and David Reimers, Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration and Assimilation (1975).


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!"

Source: Emma Lazarus, The Poems of Emma Lazarus, vol.1 (1889), 2

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