And so Emma Lazarus poem was auctioned off and disappeared into a New York mansion.
There was still not enough money to build a pedestal for the statue on Bedloe’s Island; private donations from the well to do were insufficient and the supporters of the project began to fear it would never come to fruition.
Turning to the government the pedestal encountered partisan obstacles; in New York the Republican controlled legislature allocated $50,000 for the project but it was vetoed by Democratic Governor Grover Cleveland. A year later federal House members voted $100,000 for the pedestal but the Democrats in the Senate blocked the measure.
Construction of the base was now suspended – money had run rout. Bartholdi’s huge statue, which he called Liberty enlightening the World gathered dust in over 200 crates in Europe.
The French became increasingly bitter while Boston and Philadelphia promised to immediately build a pedestal if the statue was sent to them.
Liberty may have never come to New York save for the efforts of Joseph Pulitzer.
Just when it seemed New York would lose the statue Pulitzer initiated a one man crusade to fund the project.
Pulitzer had come to America at age 17 to enlist in the Union Army. After the war he was hired as a cub reporter in St. Louis for one of the city’s German language newspapers. He became a mid-west newspaper baron before moving to New York and buying the struggling New York World.
And he made Bartholdi’s statue a crusade, having correctly seen it would become a beloved landmark and would invoke “more sentiment than we can now dream of.” He argued it would be “an irrevocable disgrace to New York City and the American Republic to have France send us this splendid gift without having provided so much as a landing place for it.”
“Let us not wait for millionaires to give us the money! It is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America!”
His paper now appealed to the people to come forward.
Pulitzer’s instincts proved on target once again. Donations poured in with notes from humble New Yorkers sending their pennies, dimes and quarters; little notes, which were gems of popular patriotism. “Here is my allowance;” “Here is the contents of my piggy bank.”
Construction of the pedestal resumed when the statue – still in pieces- arrived in New York in June 1885 to much pomp and celebration. Pulitzer announced less than 2 months later that the money for the pedestal had been raised.
Emma Lazarus was not in New York when the statue arrived. She had sailed for Europe but she was not feeling well. Slowly her strength was being sapped – she had cancer, lymphoma – gradually overcoming her immune system.
Over the next two years, sensing she would not recover she began to try to shape her literary legacy, copying all of her favorite compositions into a notebook by hand, putting them in the order in which she wanted them published after her death.
On the very first page, in the place of honor, was The New Colossus.”
After returning to New York in 1887 she succumbed to the cancer. She was only 38 years old.
None of her obituaries mention The New Colossus.
Her sisters, who controlled her literary estate brought out a two volume set of her collected works in 1888 – and they defied her instructions concerning her proudest achievement.
The New Colossus appeared on page 202.
A photo taken on dedication day
Meanwhile, the Statue of Liberty had been assembled and dedicated amid extraordinary pomp and ceremony on October 28, 1886. None of the speeches of President Cleveland or any of the dignitaries present mention immigrants or immigration. Native born Americans could not perceive how the sight of the statue would unleash a torrent of pent up emotions in those who dreamed they might live to see it.
Russian Jews, Scandinavians, Austro-Hungarians and several thousand Chinese poured into New York, hearing the “far flung clarion call of American liberty and her promise of equal opportunity.”
By 1895 it was the outpouring of Italians, surpassing the Germans who had held the top spot for forty years. Italians would hold the top spot for 17 or the next 20 years. New York’s population, which had been dominated by the Irish and Germans became predominantly Italian and Jewish. One quarter of the nation’s Italians and a third of its eastern European Jews lived in New York. Some 10% of all the Jews in the world lived in New York.
Italy had no pogroms but it had crushing poverty. More than four million Italians moved to the United States between 1880 and 1920, including my 4 grandparents. Most moved out of despair for themselves and their children and the impossibility of ever owning a piece of land to call your own.
“A few years of schooling and then work for the rest of one’s life – no prospect of ever going beyond the 5th grade or ever becoming other than what one started out to be.”
“Every bit of cultivable soil is owned by those fortunate few who lord over us.”
Living in squalid conditions, “The life of the men, the beasts and the land seemed fixed in an inflexible circle, hemmed in by the position of the mountains and the passage of time, as if condemned by nature to life imprisonment.”
After Italian unification in 1861 only 2% of males were eligible to vote in Italy. It wasn’t until 1912 that all Italian males over 30 could participate in elections.
And so they came. Many northern Italians went to Argentina; in 1890 Buenos Aires had four times as many Italian immigrants as New York. Southerners came to New York by the millions after 1890.
The ocean voyage was by steamship now. Conditions were much improved, even in steerage; it was bad but at least it was short. People still vomited and women were still pawed.
Saying goodbye on the dock at Naples
Departure would now include festivities the night before. Families and villagers would gather at a railway station the next morning to say goodbye and as the train approached to take a son away to Naples and then New York, mothers would lose control, wail and hold their children. Everyone knew there was little likelihood they would see each other again. It was almost as if they were dead. the train station replacing the cemetery.
The sight the immigrants remembered most, judging from memoirs and letters, was the sight of the statue on entering New York harbor. “It was conveying a special promise to me.” Lifting the children, even their infants to get of view of Liberty, weeping for joy, wailing, dancing
They had left so much behind, everything they had ever known to make the journey to America.
Emma Goldman, the socialist vividly recalled the day when she and her half sister arrived – “Our eyes filled with tears. Everyone was on deck. Helena and I stood pressed to each other, enraptured by the sight of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty suddenly emerging from the mist. Ah! There she was, the symbol of hope and freedom! She held her torch high to light the way to the free country, the asylum for the oppressed of all lands. We too, Helena and I would find a place in the generous heart of America.”
Library of Congress – 1910
Seventeen million immigrants would find a place from the day the statue was dedicated to the beginning of World War I, a movement of people without precedent in human history.
While immigrants seeking refuge could see the connection of the statue to their idea of liberty, it took native born Americans 20 years to recognize the transcendent connection.
In 1903 they placed a bronze tablet just inside the entrance to the pedestal bearing Enna Lazarus’ sonnet. The poem has spoken to millions of aspiring immigrants ever since.
Today, as the grandson of immigrants, I know Emma Lazarus is turning over in her grave.
P.S – Not everyone saw in the statue the face of Liberty.
An African American run newspaper in Ohio called the Cleveland Gazette wrote that the torch should not be lit and the government should:
“Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the ‘liberty’ of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed.”
I can well understand the chagrin of the black population to see such words on the statue, and to still be badly treated so long after the civil war, and in some cases by the immigrants themselves.
America’s melting pot has never quite melted.
Best wishes, Pete.
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A heartfelt rendering of the history of Lady Liberty. While her promise of liberty and welcome to all immigrants may yet defy our reach as a nation, she represents a worthy ideal for us to continually strive for.
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