The Mother of Exiles
The Statue of Liberty wasn’t always green. It took decades after it was installed in New York Harbor in 1886 for the statue’s copper facade to slowly oxidize. By 1910, Lady Liberty had developed an interesting mottled look, half brown and half green. It wasn’t until the 1920s that she was
completely covered in that now-familiar green patina. But even then, the statue’s transformation wasn’t complete. It took years after that for her to change from an austere symbol of republican values to the monument we know now as the Mother of Exiles.
Today, of course, the Statue of Liberty has become a symbol of the possibilities of immigration immigration, but Americans at the dedication ceremony weren’t much concerned with welcoming the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and neither were her creators.
The idea for the statue came out of an 1865 dinner party near the palace of Versailles. The guests, mostly intellectuals and artists, weren’t fond of the current French government, a repressive regime headed by Emperor Napoleon III. They wanted to find some way to celebrate the liberal values important to them, values like individual rights and freedom of expression.
Those principles weren’t doing that well in France, but they did seem to be flourishing in the United States, which had just abolished slavery. And so, the dinner guests dreamed up a grand gesture that would help connect France to the American story of expanding freedoms, a statue of liberty lifting a torch and crushing a broken chain beneath her feet. It would be a gift from French citizens to the US, representing Franco-American friendship, the expansion of liberties in both countries, and the hope for world peace. But one thing it wouldn’t represent was immigration, says Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Boston College.“The notion of the United States as a refuge or a goal for migrants wasn’t part of what the French liberals had in mind at all.”
Americans weren’t particularly pushing the idea of the U.S. as refuge either. By the time the statue was finally inaugurated, 20 years had passed. It was the fall of 1886, and Americans were feeling decidedly skeptical about immigration. That spring, the Haymarket bombing in Chicago had killed 11 people and injured dozens more. The actual bomb thrower was never identified, but eight men were convicted for conspiracy. Six of them were immigrants. Five months later at the Statue of Liberty’s inaugural festivities, Haymarket was still on many Americans’ minds. The main speaker made sure to emphasize that the US was only interested in welcoming some immigrants.
Three years later, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly wrote a similarly anxious poem about the statue, titling it “Unguarded Gates”
“Oh, Liberty, white Goddess. Is it well
To leave the gates unguarded? On thy breast
Fold sorrow’s children. Soothe the hurts of fate.
Lift the downtrodden. But with hand of steel,
Stay those who to the sacred portals come
To waste the gifts of freedom.”
The much more welcoming poem we’re more familiar with today (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe
free…”) didn’t become synonymous with the Statue of Liberty until much later. Written by Emma Lazarus to commemorate the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing violence in Russia, it was auctioned off to help support the statue’s installation. 17 years later, a friend of Lazarus’ had a plaque made to add to the statue itself. But even then, says Skerry,“that plaque is put in some relatively obscure place on the inside of the pedestal in 1903. And there it sits for several decades, relatively unnoted.”
During those decades, immigration to the US plummeted. A new quota system introduced in 1924 sharply limited admission from what many believe to be undesirable groups, Asians, Jews, southeastern Europeans. Meanwhile, Lady Liberty was as popular as ever. In 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt commemorated the 50th anniversary of the statue’s dedication with a speech that acknowledged the United States’ identity as a nation of immigrants, but didn’t mention Emma Lazarus’ sonnet and wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about the prospect of future waves of immigrants, noting that “we have within our shores today the materials out of which we shall continue to build an even better home for liberty.”
Around the same time, some people were starting to connect the statue with immigration and with refugees in particular. One of them was a journalist named Louis Adamic, who wrote books with names like America and the Refugees. He was especially concerned about the rise of Nazism in Germany and argued that the U.S. should admit many more Jewish refugees. But in 1939, a bill that would have allowed an additional 20,000 German Jewish children into the country died in committee. The same year, a Fortune Magazine poll suggested that 83% of Americans favored retaining the limits on immigration.
It wasn’t until after the war that Adamic’s position became mainstream. Footage of US troops liberating Nazi concentration camps reinforced many Americans’ sense that their country was on the side of freedom. But it also raised troubling questions about the US government’s resistance to admitting refugees before the war. That blend of pride and uneasiness led many to embrace a new, more welcoming version of liberty. It was against that backdrop that, in 1945, the plaque with Lazarus’ sonnet was moved to a much more visible place next to the statue’s entrance.
The move solidified the association between immigration and the statute. Lady Liberty was no longer the white goddess protecting native-born Americans, but instead the symbol of hope and new beginnings for immigrants. In 1965, the restrictive quota system was replaced by a new law, one that still provides the baseline for current immigration policy. And when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed that bill into law at the Statue of Liberty.
“Over my shoulders here, you can see Ellis Island, whose vacant corridors echo today the joyous sound of long-ago voices. And today we can all believe that the lamp of this grand old lady is brighter today and the golden door that she guards gleams more brilliantly in the light of an increased liberty for the people from all countries.”