Is “The New Colossus” About America’s Greatness?

Emma Lazarus’ timeless 1883 sonnet “The New Colossus” has been more conspicuous than ever following Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Many prominent political figures have tried to use its words to talk about of America should be as a country.

Words from 'The New Colossus' poem by Emma Lazarus are engraved.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

James Comey, 7th director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, voiced out that America’s greatness lies in its diversity, with Pelosi going as far as asserting it as the source of revitalization. But do people misread the true meaning of the sonnet?

The Poem’s Writer and History

Emma Lazarus composed the sonnet for an auction to generate money for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Unfortunately, she did not witness her poem being cast onto a bronze plaque on the statue’s pedestal, as she succumbed to cancer at age 38, just a year after penning her well-known poem.

A drawing of Emma Lazarus.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Similar to another notable poem, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, “The New Colossus” is regularly regarded differently. It has been revived by writers, speakers, and politicians to address pressing issues in our fractious political climate in recent years.

Surfacing at a Crucial Time

Lazarus’s poem surfaced at a crucial juncture in human history. Before it was recited at the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition in New York in 1883, The Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law to restrict immigration from a specific population, was signed.

The deconstructed arm of the Statue of Liberty
Source: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

A year after the poem was read, the European nations gathered in Berlin to split the African continent into colonies. Long before the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, “The New Colossus” stood at the nexus of American immigration law and European colonization. These changes in geopolitics and capitalism cannot be disassociated from the liberal spirit and sympathies of the poem.

Critique Rather than Redefinition

Many American poets throughout the 20th century have used the sonnet to criticize rather than redefine greatness in the United States. These writers uncover that greatness is founded on the enslavement, derogation, and exploitation of African American and Latin people.

Enslaved people picking cotton on a plantation
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This challenging, “high literary” genre, purportedly the domain of a white European elite, has emerged as one of the instruments at our disposal to dismantle societal prejudice and the damages of globalization. Including Lazarus in that tradition is to view her sonnet as more than Comey and others would have, a rival interpretation of American greatness.

Invitation for the Tired, Poor, and Huddled Masses

Pelosi and Comey are, of course, coming from a good place. However, they are falling into using the poem to defend American greatness based on diversity and inclusivity. In contrast to the empowered, hard-working immigrants that others portray, the impoverished masses invited in this poem are the tired, poor, and homeless.

The Statue of Liberty and Liberty Island.
Photo by Geo. P. Hall & Son/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

There is no assurance that “liberty” will be fully achieved if the basis for managing borders is only grounded on the citation of liberal values, however vital it may be to continue affirming them in the face of their constant rejection. In the words of writer Paul Aster, the poem turned the Statue of Liberty into “a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcasts and downtrodden of the world.”