The Statue of Liberty: Bringing “The New Colossus” to America

E Pluribus Unum

—"From many, one"

"Your sonnet gives its subject a raison d'etre."

—The poet James Russell Lowell in a letter to Emma Lazarus, 17 December 1883, Letters to Emma Lazarus in the Columbia University Library, ed. Ralph L. Rusk (New York: New York Public Library, 1949), p. 74.

Even if they have never heard of the nineteenth-century poet and activist Emma Lazarus, most Americans will probably recognize these lines from her sonnet "The New Colossus":

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Since 1902, when the poem was engraved on a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty, "The New Colossus" has helped to shape our sense of the statue as a symbol of hope for millions of immigrants.

Yet Lazarus's poem was written almost twenty years previously, in conjunction with an auction held in 1883 to raise funds for a pedestal. The Centennial celebration of 1876, for which the statue had been originally intended, had come and gone, and while the French had kept their end of the bargain by completing the statue itself, the Americans had still not fulfilled their commitment to erect a pedestal. In this lesson, students learn about the effort to convince a skeptical American public to contribute to the effort to erect a pedestal and to bring the Statue of Liberty to New York.

With its focus on events surrounding America's Centennial, this lesson thus provides excellent capstone activities for students in grades 6–8 who are studying U.S. history through 1877. It also provides guided explorations of primary historical materials for students at the 6–8 or more advanced levels who are learning about Gilded Age society or about immigration issues in the late nineteenth century. The first three activities—in which students compare nineteenth-century and modern ideas about the statue and its symbolic meanings, analyze primary historical documents, and discuss Emma Lazarus's sonnet—may be taught together or separately. The fourth activity, in which students write letters to imaginary groups of nineteenth-century readers to explain the meaning of the Statue of Liberty, is best taught in conjunction with at least one of the preceding activities.

Guiding Questions

How was a skeptical American public persuaded to support bringing the Statue of Liberty to the United States?

Learning Objectives

Discuss the meaning of symbols associated with the statue. Compare Bartholdi's original vision of the statue to its meaning for Americans today.

Learn how the American public in the 1870s and 1880s was persuaded to contribute to a pedestal fund for the Statue of Liberty.

Analyze two primary historical documents: a political cartoon and a magazine article on the fundraising effort, both from 1885.

Read and analyze Emma Lazarus' sonnet, "The New Colossus."

Learn about public attitudes toward immigration in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Write a persuasive letter to a specific nineteenth-century audience to gain support for bringing the statue to America.