And so the Civil War was over; “these United States” became “the United States. ” Emancipation brought the abolition of slavery to the country as former slaves became citizens along the right to vote and equality before the law.
Of course it didn’t quite work out that way but few could foresee another hundred years of Jim Crow and segregation.
In France, Eduard Rene de Laboulaye, a noted French legal scholar, like most French intellectuals of his day, adored the United States. (How things have changed!) It was not so much its culture that he loved; it was its Constitution, a government of freedoms with a written Bill of Rights.
He was thrilled when slavery was abolished, always believing that the institution was inconsistent with United States republican ideals. When Robert E. Lee surrendered, Laboulaye established the French Emancipation Committee, hoping a great monument would be build to honor emancipation and that it could be a joint French-American project, for the French too prized liberty above all else.
No one in the United States was interested.
In the 1870s the French government approved funds to pay for the design and construction of a colossal statue, asking that the Americans only provide a suitable location and pedestal. Frederic Bartholdi, the schulpture’s eventual designer, sailing into New York to promote the idea, passed tiny Bedloe’s island and decided the statue should be there, to be seen by every ship passenger arriving at the United States busiest port.
Presidents Grant and Hayes authorized the erection of the statue but America was a starkly different place in 1877 than it was in 1865. Tired of the sectionalism and staggering under a recession which saw a 25% unemployment rate in the northeast and mid-west, white Americans did not want to be reminded of the issues which so recently divided them.
Other states didn’t want to pay for something in New York and New Yorkers simply viewed it as a waste of money in hard times. Besides, no one thought the French would complete the project so why build a pedestal?
The French, sensing the lack of interest in a monument to emancipation now touted it as a gift for the 100th anniversary of American independence and long French-American friendship, but it was still a no go. The pedestal committee in America tried everything imaginable to raise $100,000 for the base on Bedloe’s island – newspaper memorials, theater benefits, tours of private art collections, Bartholdi sent the gigantic arm of the statue for public view, conveying the magnitude of the project.
In 1883 the Committee held an auction for which they solicited art and literary manuscripts – a leather bound, velvet lined portfolio that would include twenty five watercolors and letters from the President, Mark Twain, Henry James and Bret Harte – and two original poems to be auctioned off for the pedestal fund.
One of the writers asked to submit a poem was 34 year old Emma Lazarus, born into “one of the best known and oldest Hebrew families” of the city. Emma’s family, wealthy from Louisiana sugar, spent most of their time in New York and summered at Newport, socializing with the Astors, Belmonts and Vanderbilts. Her modest literary renown resulted from poetry and magazine articles, primarily on Jewish topics, but she corresponded regularly with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James.
Emma had a strong social conscience despite her wealth. “The problems of the world weighed strangely heavy on her mind” noted Constance Cary Harrison. a well to do acquaintance. More about Constance Harrison later.
The anti-Semitic pogroms in eastern Europe after the assassination of Alexander II brought waves of Russian Jews to New York and she volunteered to assist the refugees working at the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society and the Jewish “paupers” refuge on Wards Island.
After one visit to the island she noted “how excited the immigrants were to breathe in America the air of freedom….Every American must feel a thrill of pride and gratitude in the thought that this country is refuge of the oppressed….and however wretched be the material offered to him from the refuse of other nations, he accepts it with generous hospitality.”
Constance Harrington, another of New York’s female writers was a native of Mississippi and was the Confederacy’s Betsy Ross, having sewed along with her sisters the first Confederate battle flag – the Stars and Bars. Her husband was Jefferson Davis’ private secretary.
Relocating to New York after the war she became a successful novelist acquainted with Lazarus. She was one of the socialites asked to assemble the portfolio to be auctioned off for the pedestal fund.
She approached Emma to write a poem. Lazarus at first refused to write something “to order,” which most assuredly would “be flat” lacking ins:piration.
Harrison refused to take no for an answer. In her thick Mississippi drawl she sarcastically replied
“Think of that Goddess standing on her pedestal down yonder in the bay, and holding her torch out to those Russian refugees of yours you are so fond of visiting on Wards Island!”
“A nerve struck, her dark eyes deepened, her cheek flushed and the time for merriment was passed. She said not a word more then.”
A few days laer Lazarus delivered a handwritten sonnet to Harrison for the portfolio entitled The New Colossus”
That 14 line poem gave new meaning and purpose to the figure of Liberty. It would not honor emancipation nor the anniversary of independence. Of course no one knew it yet.
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,
uour huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Like every other moneymaking scheme the Pedestal Committee dreamed up, it was a disappointment. The portfolio was sold for $1,500, only half what the Committee expected. The portfolio quickly disappeared into a New York mansion and Lazarus’ sonnet, which organizers had read at the auction was immediately forgotten.
There was still no pedestal on which to place the statue.