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Emma Lazarus, Poet of Exiles

October 24, 2019

by Ellen Tucker

Celso Flores, New York Statue of Liberty, September 21, 2009. https://www.flickr.com/photos/celso/4067353996/. Cropped for use by TeachingAmericanHistory.org.

When the Statue of Liberty was officially dedicated on October 28, 1886, President Grover Cleveland made a short speech thanking the French for their gift. Concluding, he underlined the intent of the statue in the minds of those who gave it:

We will not forget that Liberty has here made her home; nor shall her chosen altar be neglected. Willing votaries will constantly keep alive its fires, and these shall gleam upon the shores of our sister republic [France] . . .. Reflected thence, and joined with answering rays, a stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression, until liberty enlightens the world.

Yet a few other Americans—notably, the poet Emma Lazarus—saw the statue as conveying an additional message. Over the years, many Americans have come to embrace her vision.

The Idea for the Statue

French historian Eduoard de Laboulaye, observing the close of the American Civil War, proposed that the French make a gift of a monumental sculpture to the United States. The gift would commemorate the success of American democracy. Laboulaye, a leading expert on the American Constitution and an abolitionist, understood the war as Lincoln did. Before a worldwide audience, the war had tested whether a nation “conceived in liberty, and founded on the proposition that all men are created equal . . . can long endure.” Originally, Laboulaye conceived of the statue as a joint project of France and the United States, one that would rebuke the authoritarian impulses of Louis Napoleon, who had staged a coup d’état in 1851, reinstated the empire, and imposed on France a new constitution granting himself almost dictatorial powers. By 1865, however, Louis Napoléon had permitted a return of a parliamentary system, allowing Laboulaye to push his idea. Read more of the story at Teaching American History’s sister site, ReligionInAmerica.org.

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