The New Colossus
Statue of Liberty
Give me your hungry,
Give me your tired,
Give me your homeless,
Give me your wanderers,
Statue of Liberty,
Standing in the harbour,
This is America,
We try a little harder… Little River Band
The Statue of Liberty is the most famous statue in the USA and is one of the top tourist attractions in New York but disappointingly it hasn’t made any lists, official or otherwise, of the seven wonders of the modern world. I must have known about the statue by 1968 as I vividly recall the half-buried statue turning up in the last scene of the ‘Planet of the Apes’ movie of that year. I suspect that this image was so powerful because the movie makers probably suspected that if humanity destroys our planet, among the most really disappointing things would be the destruction of the Statue of Liberty. I also remember in 1975, to my discredit, singing along to Glen Shorrock’s less than successful pop song, ‘Statue of Liberty’. The words looked familiar but I didn’t realise at the time that Glen was plagiarising the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem (1883) that are now attached to a plaque inside the Statue. It wasn’t until 2019 that I had the time to wander down to Fort Clinton in Battery Park New York and buy a $12 ticket for the ferry out to the island in the harbour where the beautiful statue stood astride its colossal pedestal. It was a very enjoyable trip out to Liberty Island and I found myself getting very excited the closer we got to our destination.
The wharf where the ferry lands is on the opposite side of Liberty Island looking from Battery park so we almost circumnavigated the Statue before landing. The views from the water were amazing.
I was excited to be visiting the Statue of Liberty for many reasons but I suspect there was an element of teenage memory in my fascination with the story of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World that was called up by visiting this famous huge statue in New York Harbour. One of the explanatory plates in the Museum on Liberty Island is the one above right where it acknowledges that the Colossus of Rhodes was its “most influential prototype.” We know of this ancient statue from the writings of Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) who wrote about the Colossus after visiting it on Rhodes. “But that which is by far the most worthy of our admiration, is the colossal statue of the Sun, which stood formerly at Rhodes, and was the work of Chares the Lindian…; no less than seventy cubits in height. This statue fifty-six years after it was erected, was thrown down by an earthquake; but even as it lies, it excites our wonder and admiration.” It was made from copper and apparently lay on the harbour wall for another 600 years before it was cut up and sold off. I always thought Pliny was lucky to have viewed the huge statue but like the Temple of Artemis near Ephesus and the Statue of Zeus at Olympus, most of the seven wonders of the ancient world are lost to human sight. The exciting thing about our ferry trip that day was that we would actually see this modern wonder, as gorgeous as it was when it was presented to the citizens of the United States in 1886.
Visits to the crown of the Statue of Liberty have to be booked well in advance of your trip and only 254 visitors per day are allowed to climb the 354 steps to the top. Understandably the security of such visits is very tight and the line is often long and slow so our small party did not consider this excursion when we visited the Statue. The Museum at the base of the statue is very interesting and we spent considerable time there checking out the story of the development of the Statue and its slow construction.
The idea for the Statue of Liberty appears to have been developing in France in 1865 after the end of the American Civil War and the emancipation of all African American slaves. The man credited with generating support for a statue to liberty celebrating French involvement in the American ‘experiment’ was the French law professor and politician, Edouard Rene de Laboulaye. He inspired the sculptor sculptor Frederic Bartholdi to design the figure and both spent many years convincing French and American politicians of the importance of the project. Raising the money for such a huge structure began in earnest from 1882 and parts of the statue were displayed at exhibitions in both the USA and Paris. The photo of the head of Lady Liberty, above right, is from the Paris World Fair in 1878. It was in supporting the fund raising for the Statue of Liberty that the American poet Emma Lazarus wrote her poem, ‘The New Collossus’, that I mentioned at the start of this article (See Appendix 1).
The Statue of Liberty was officially opened in 1886 by the American president of the time, Grover Cleveland. Details of this event are captured by the poster above from the museum under the statue.
A plate in this same museum concisely explains the point of the statue…
“The statue of Liberty was originally conceived in part to celebrate the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States and for many around the world, the advancement of freedom is the monument’s most important symbolism. Ordinary people, from American suffragists in the 1800s and 1900s to Chinese students in the 1980s, have raised up the statue’s likeness to call for greater equality, an end to injustice, and more enlightened societies.”
However the grand dreams of hope and freedom were not always fulfilled by history since the erection of the statue. One of the displays in the museum shows all the advertisements where the image of the Statue did not involve dreams of freedom, but its use in commercial advertisements. At the same time, the display also showed how the image of the Statue of Liberty was used to promote patriotism during the wars of the twentieth century. The second half of the plate mentioned above notes this occasional ‘promises unfulfilled’ of the original purpose of the Statue.
“In the ongoing struggle for these causes, the Statue’s image can sometimes convey hope and encouragement but it can also be a bitter symbol for promises unfulfilled. From the patriot to the refugee, the dissident to the disenfranchised, many who seek liberty continue to look to the Statue. For all those who quest for liberty, the statue continues to beckon, challenge, and inspire.”
From the museum, the visitors head for the trail around the island, inspecting the Statue from all viewpoints. It is then down to the harbour wall where one of the best views of New York can be obtained. From here it is a leisurely walk back to ferry.
Walking past the giant statue on the way to the ferry, some of the details of the Statue of Liberty’s design start to become more obvious. For example, the book that Lady Liberty is holding has the date, ‘JULY IV, MDCCLXXVI’ written on the cover (July 4, 1776) which was the date on which the American founding document, ‘The Declaration of Independence’, was published, announcing the official start of the Revolutionary War with Great Britain. It was this war the French revolutionaries were very keen to support the Americans with. At the feet of Liberty are the broken chains that are a powerful element of the Statue’s symbolism.
New York has always been famous for its welcoming of refugees, from the Irish fleeing the Potato Famine (1845-49) to the wider European exodus before and after the two world wars of the twentieth century. Castle Clinton on Battery Point from 1851 to 1890 was the processing centre for immigrants coming through New York during the late 19th century. From 1892-1954, Ellis Island, further out into the harbour from Lower Manhattan, became the processing centre for immigrants. During this period, the sight of the huge Statue of Liberty on the neighbouring island would have been a source of great comfort for people leaving the disasters of the European wars and their aftermath and arriving at Ellis Island. On the way back from Liberty Island, the ferry stops at Ellis Island and visitors can disembark and check out the island and its museum of immigration history.
APPENDIX 1… Emma Lazarus (1849–1887)
Emma Lazarus in her short life of 38 years accomplished a great deal as a poet, a writer of prose and a translator of other artists works such as the German poets, Johan von Goethe and Heinrich Heine. Her family were of Jewish origin who had fled pogroms in Brazil before the American Revolution. She became an activist for Jewish immigrants who had fled the anti-semitic violence in Russia in the 1880’s. She became seriously ill on her second trip to Europe and died, most likely from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, in late 1887. Her poem, ‘The New Colossus’, with its referencing back to the Colossus of Rhodes, was published in 1883 to support the fund-raising for the Statue of Liberty. It was most likely inspired by her work with immigrants to New York
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,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
On the path back to the ferry there is an unusual statue of Emma Lazarus, contemplating amongst the trees, perhaps caught thinking deeply about her activist work and her latest poem.