Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” and The Statue of Liberty

Introduction: Lessons and resources for teaching about Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, and the Statue of Liberty.

What is the relationship between Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus to the Statue of Liberty? People can disagree about the symbolic connection between the statue, the poem, and immigration but the historical details matter.

Poet Emma Lazarus was born into a New York Sephardic Jewish family in 1849. According to the National Park Service, “Aside from writing, Lazarus was also involved in charitable work for refugees. At Ward’s Island, she worked as an aide for Jewish immigrants who had been detained by Castle Garden immigration officials. She was deeply moved by the plight of the Russian Jews she met there and these experiences influenced her writing.”

With efforts to raise money for the pedestal of the Statue were underway, William Maxwell Evarts, the Chairman of the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty, and author Constance Carey Harrison recruited Lazarus’ to write a poem to be auctioned off as part of the fundraising efforts. Lazarus agreed and penned her famous poem in November 1883. Fundraising for the Statue continued over the new few years as construction moved forward.

The Statue was dedicated with a ticker tape parade and a public ceremony on the afternoon of October 28, 1886. Lazarus’s poem was formally added to the display at the Statue of Liberty 17 years later. According to the National Park Service “words from the sonnet were inscribed on a plaque and placed on the inner wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Today, the plaque is on display in the Statue of Liberty Exhibit in the Statue’s pedestal.”

Educators might find this excerpt from Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary a useful resource for the classroom.

Teaching Ideas

We worked with the American Jewish Historical Society to create an online study guide with primary sources to teach about immigration, the New Colossus, and the Statue of Liberty. Use the links below to learn more.

Donna Neary describes using the guide with her students and shares some of the poetry her immigrant students created.