The story behind the Statue of Liberty’s unexpected transformation into a beacon for refugees and immigrants

A story seen through the fog.
A story seen through the fog.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When the Statue of Liberty was completed in 1886, it was a symbol of friendship with France, and a celebration of democracy and the end of American slavery. It wasn’t, however, the symbol of welcome to the world’s tired and “huddled masses” that it is today. How the statue came to be a beacon to new arrivals in the US has to do with the poem inscribed at its base:  ”The New Colossus,” which was lost to obscurity for decades before claiming its place in the nation’s collective conscious.

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!”

These lines were published in 1883 as part of efforts to fund-raise for the statue’s completion. Today it is as deeply ingrained in American identity as the national anthem. Now as a debate over immigration rattles the US, sparking doubts about what the country and its maternal mascot stand for, it’s worth taking a look back at the sonnet’s unusual journey.

A new meaning for the Statue of Liberty

In 1865, French abolitionist Edouard de Laboulaye proposed the construction of a monument for the US to mark the end of the US civil war and institutionalized slavery. To de Laboulaye, the end of American slavery was the last step in the US becoming a beacon of democracy to the world, explains George Tselos, head archivist for the statue and neighboring Ellis Island.

But Laboulaye did not include a pedestal in his gift, and the US government struggled to raise funds to mount the new statue. In 1883, New York artists held an auction to raise money for the statue, commissioning poetry for their exhibition catalog. One of their poets was Emma Lazarus, an upperclass Jewish New Yorker.

Lazarus conjured her own myth for the monument: She imagined the statue as a goddess called the Mother of Exiles, who welcomes the poor and tired looking for freedom, guiding the way with her lamp. Lazarus was devoted to the cause of Russian-Jewish refugees, and felt strongly that the settled and more established Jews in the US had a responsibility to help downtrodden newcomers.

Fellow poet James Russell Lowell praised “The New Colossus,” saying Lazarus gave the statue its raison d’etre, and remarking that he liked it better than the building itself. But Lazarus died a year after the statue was completed, and the poem fell into obscurity. Only 20 years later, thanks to the lobbying of Georgina Schuyler, an art patron and Lazarus’s friend, was the poem inscribed on a memorial plaque and placed at the foot of the statue.

The rise of “The New Colossus”

The now-famous lines—”Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—would not become widely known for decades, until a series of historical events made its message necessary: In the 1920s, the US passed quota laws that restricted immigrants based on nationality. By the 1930s, the number of immigrants arriving in the US had fallen dramatically. As European Jews increasingly sought refuge outside Nazi-occupied countries, the US was building up its walls.

In a 1934 New York Times article, L.H. Robbins wrote about the Statue of Liberty with nostalgia for more welcoming times:

To the throngs of homeless newcomers who viewed her from Castle Garden and, after 1891, from Ellis Island, she seemed a Lady Bountiful bidding them welcome to a land of freedom; a goddess indeed…. In their toll they saw her as she had awaited them at the end of their voyage, a symbol and a promise. Native-born Americans can hardly know what the statue meant, and still means, to folk who once were strangers within our gates.

A letter to the editor published the following day asked why Robbins hadn’t mentioned Lazarus. It included the text of her poem.

Over the next few years, Slovenian-American author Louis Adamic became Lazarus’s posthumous champion. He popularized the poem, ceaselessly quoting it in his writing. By the early 1940s, an annual commemoration of Lazarus’s death was held at the foot of the statute.

In July 1941, a New York Times article about one such memorial said:

When Miss Lazarus wrote her poem, there were few who wished to dim the torch. Millions were yet to come overseas, to sweat in mill, mine and factory, to climb upward in the democratic whirl and dust. They, too, made today’s America. The millions will not come again. Our help and encouragement must go overseas to them. But we will have fallen from our high estate if there is not still a welcome here for the bravest and the hardest-pressed.

Today, the most famous phrases of the poem today still reverberate. It’s taught in schools and frequently quoted by presidents. In 2015, speaking in solidarity with France after a devastating terror attack on Paris, then-president Obama said:

Here in the United States, refugees coming to America go through up to two years of intense security checks, including biometric screening. Nobody who sets foot in America goes through more screening than refugees. And we’re prepared to share these tools with France and our European partners. As François has said, our humanitarian duty to help desperate refugees and our duty to our security—those duties go hand in hand.

On the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France, there are words we know so well:  Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. That’s the spirit that makes us American. That’s the spirit that binds us to France. That’s the spirit we need today.

This week, the poem has been evoked by protestors at US airports protesting the government’s recent travel ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Through 130 years of the ”new Colossus,” US immigration policies have changed with each new geopolitical ripple. But Lazarus’s words remain inscribed on one of the most recognizable symbols of the United States—an activist-poet’s vision that became the nation’s.

“Her poem was a prophecy,” says Esther Schor, a Princeton English professor and author of 2006 biography Emma Lazarus. “It isn’t legislation,” she says, “But it is an ideal.”

This post has been corrected to reflect that Emma Lazarus died in 1887, not 1884. We regret the error.