Emma Lazarus writes "The New Colossus"

November 2, 1883

A manuscript copy of Emma Lazarus's famous sonnet, “The New Colossus,” bears the date November 2, 1883. She wrote the poem for an art auction, “In Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund.” The Statue of Liberty, designed by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, was erected on October 28, 1886. It was given to the people of the United States by France in recognition of the friendship between the two nations established during the American Revolution. While France provided the statue itself, American fundraising efforts were required to pay for the pedestal. In 1903, sixteen years after Lazarus's death, “The New Colossus” was engraved on a plaque and placed in the pedestal as a memorial.

In the 1880s, a wave of anti-Semitic pogroms across Eastern Europe prompted a massive Jewish flight to America. During this time, Lazarus, who was already a well-known poet, became involved in visiting Russian refugees and volunteering for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Inspired by the suffering and fortitude of these immigrants, Lazarus used her literary prominence to call attention to the scourge of anti-Semitism and to become an early American spokesperson for a Zionist solution to Jewish persecution. Her concern for the history of Jewish suffering and the continued plight of many immigrants found expression in "The New Colossus," among other powerful works.

Lazarus's famous lines in “The New Colossus,” “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” were not originally part of the Statue and were obscured in the years after Lazarus’ death in 1887. It was the efforts of her friend Georgina Schuyler that resulted in Lazarus’ lines being inscribed on a plaque affixed within the statue’s pedestal in 1903. In 1945, the plaque was moved to the Statue’s main entrance hall.

Over time, Lazarus' words caught the national imagination and became indelibly associated with the meaning of the Statue and with the American ideal of liberty. They continue to inspire the way Americans think about freedom and exile. Cited frequently, including at the 2004 Republican National Convention, “The New Colossus” continues to symbolize America's promise of opportunity and freedom to the “huddled masses” of every land.

Sources: jwa.org/womenofvalor/lazarus; www.350th.org/exhibit01/index.html.


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Emma Lazarus.
Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Emma Lazarus writes "The New Colossus"." (Viewed on September 28, 2023) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/nov/02/1883/emma-lazarus>.


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