This week, as usual, has been filled with chatter about what people in Washington are saying about immigration. Several people commented on the familiar poem by Emma Lazarus especially the final words, which are framed as a quotation from the Statue of Liberty:

“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!”.  

Statue of Liberty

Who was Emma Lazarus and why did she write those words? Well, one thing is certain, she wasn’t thinking about the current immigration debate. Born in 1849 in New York City, Lazarus came from a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family which had been settled in America since before the American Revolution. Lazarus was educated at home by tutors. She studied German and French as well as American and British literature and started writing poetry while she was very young perhaps inspired by the fact that her great-great-grandmother had been a poet.

Lazarus published her first book of poems and translations when she was eighteen and became a successful writer while she was still in her twenties. She published translations from European literature including works by Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich Heine, and Victor Hugo. She also wrote novels and plays. Her work was admired by critics such as William Cullen Bryant and was  well-received by readers.

The Lazarus family, including Emma, was part of a cosmopolitan social world in New York and did not attend religious services or participate very much in Jewish events until the 1880s.  It was the pogroms in Russia, which followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, that awakened Lazarus to the danger facing many Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe. Lazarus became an activist, working to help the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who fled to the United States during the last decades of the nineteenth century. She volunteered to work with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society and also helped to found a technical high school for immigrants.

While Emma Lazarus was pursuing her writing career, other people were promoting the idea of building a Statue of Liberty. In 1865, Edouard de Laboulaye, a French philosopher and a strong abolitionist, had proposed that a monument be built as a gift from France to the United States. He wanted the statue to commemorate the perseverance of freedom and democracy in the United States and to honor the work of the late president Abraham Lincoln. Ten years later, in 1875, an agreement was reached by which France would pay for the statue while Americans would provide the pedestal on which it would be installed.

Fundraising is never easy and the Americans who supported the building of the statue tried a number of ways to finance it. President Grover Cleveland was asked to give $50,000 of public money to help pay for the pedestal, but he refused. Congress also refused to authorize any payment. The money would have to come from ordinary citizens. Fundraisers then got the idea of holding an auction of art and manuscripts to support the effort. It was at this point that Emma Lazarus was asked to write a poem to be donated to the auction. The sonnet she wrote was “The New Colossus“, a copy of which is now enshrined in the pedestal of the statue.

Although Emma Lazarus is now the poet most closely identified with the Statue of Liberty and with immigration, she did not live long enough to know about the honor given her work. She was not mentioned when the statue was installed in 1886, and her poem was not engraved and placed inside the pedestal until 1903. By then Emma Lazarus had died, probably of leukemia, in 1887 at the age of 38. Her poem about immigration and the role it has played in the development of America, however, remains very much alive and people still quarrel about its meaning.