Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

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

Created October 6, 2010


The Lesson


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which students compare nineteenth-century and modern ideas about the statue and its symbolic meanings, analyze primary historical documents, and discuss Emma Lazarus's sonnet—may be taught together or separately.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

Preparation Instructions

  • Teachers can find a detailed account of the statue's origins on The National Park Service website, a link from the EDSITEment resource The Internet Public Library. There is another excellent and well-written essay on the history of the statue available through the American Park Network, also a link on The Internet Public Library.
  • A student-oriented introduction to the history of the statue's arrival in America is available from America's Library, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory. From the same source, they can also read an essay on the Gilded Age, which will give students some background on the period they will be studying in this lesson.
  • Historical Background (for your convenience, the following account synthesizes the disparate narratives available on the web resources listed above): Since 1902, when Emma Lazarus's famous sonnet 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 in 1883, when she wrote the poem, that symbolic meaning reflected what was still a novel and uncommon perspective. Sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi had conceived of "Liberty Enlightening the World" as an emblem of solidarity between the people of France and the U.S. and a sign of their mutual desire for liberty. Written in 1883 for an art auction "In Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund," Lazarus's poem was part of a larger effort to persuade an often skeptical or indifferent public to contribute funds for the American commitment to build the pedestal for the statue. Because Lazarus, a well-known and well-connected poet in New York, was interested in issues of immigration and justice, these subjects naturally enough found their way into the poem. Whether accidental or intentional, the emphasis in "The New Colossus" on immigration expresses a prescient view: today the Statue of Liberty continues to greet new immigrants and embodies opportunity and freedom for those seeking a better life in America.

    At the time Lazarus wrote her poem, however, prospects for Lady Liberty's own arrival in the U.S. did not look bright. Despite the country's unprecedented economic growth during its so-called Gilded Age (1878–1889), the statue's supporters struggled to raise funds. No money at all had been raised by 1876, America's Centennial and the date originally planned for the statue's inauguration. In New York City, wealthy patrons of the arts were reluctant to support the venture, and the middle classes felt that contributing to the statue was the responsibility of the rich; others wondered whether the money might not be better spent in aid of the poor. Elsewhere in the country, few were inclined to donate money for a large French sculpture in New York. By means of benefit theatrical events, art exhibitions and auctions (such as the occasion for which Lazarus' poem was written), and even prize fights, funds were slowly gathered. But too slowly: by 1885, it was clear that these efforts had been inadequate. The breakthrough and turning point came when a Hungarian immigrant named Joseph Pulitzer used the power of his newspaper, The World, to rouse, persuade, cajole, browbeat, and in some cases even shame the public into donating to the pedestal fund. It was an enormous success. The pedestal was built, the statue assembled, and the dedication made on October 29, 1886.
  • To find information on the issue of immigration and urban growth in late-nineteenth-century America, consult the EDSITEment resource American Memory, which features a lesson on immigration. You can learn more about Ellis Island from the National Park Service, a link on the EDSITEment resource The Internet Public Library.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. America's Centennial and the Pedestal Fund
  • As a warm-up exercise, and to establish the meaning of the statue for Americans today, ask students to brainstorm what they already know about the Statue of Liberty. With those ideas displayed on the board, share with your students the meanings of some of the more specialized symbols built into the Statue of Liberty (the crown, the torch, the sandals, and so on). Students can explore those symbolic meanings themselves through an interactive activity on The National Park Service website (a link from the EDSITEment resource The Internet Public Library). Alternatively, you can download the information from the site, and share it in the form of a handout or an overhead. You can also ask students to read a student-oriented essay on the history of the statue, available from America's Library, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory.
  • Share with your students the key concepts of the historical background, summarized above. Discuss the vision of Frederic Bartholdi and the American fundraising effort with your class. Point out that the issue of immigration was not part of the statue's symbolic meaning for most people in the 1870s and 1880s.
Activity 2. Analyzing Primary Historical Documents
  • Download all necessary primary documents and student worksheets ahead of time and prepare the necessary number of handouts. Students can work individually or in small groups to complete their analysis of these primary source documents. Please note bracketed directions for finding materials in the online archival collections.
  • Download and adapt to your own needs the "Written Document Analysis Worksheet," one of the several worksheets for analyzing primary source documents available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website, The Digital Classroom. Have students complete a different worksheet for each of the two documents below.
    • Document #1: On the EDSITEment resource American Memory, students can read about one fundraiser in which small replicas of the statue were sold for a dollar. [To find this resource, search by title for "The Great Statue of Liberty and the Pedestal Fund"; the article comes from Manufacturer and builder, Volume 17, Issue 6, June 1885].
    • *Document #2: From the Making of America project (a link on American Memory) comes a more challenging but also brief essay entitled "Editor's Easy Chair," Harper's New Monthly Magazine vol. 70, no. 417 (February 1885): pp. 483–484. Although students may need some help understanding this essay, its second section is invaluable for what it reveals about the fundraising effort. [To find the relevant text, you will need to click on the link provided above and go to page 483; the "Editor's Easy Chair" feature begins just after the end of "East Angels," by Constance Fenimore Woolson. The most relevant portion of "Editor's Easy Chair" is the second section, which begins the bottom right column of page 483. Printing this document is a bit tricky: first, go to the "view as" dropdown menu in the upper left corner of the screen (not your Internet browser's "view" menu, but the menu that is part of the website); choose "view as PDF" and generate the optical text image as a PDF; print that file.
Activity 3. Reading Emma Lazarus's Sonnet, "The New Colossus"
  • Distribute copies of the text of "New Colossus" from Academy of American Poets; there is also a copy of "New Colossus" at the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia.
  • Before reading the poem, share with your students a little background on Emma Lazarus, drawing from the information provided in the Introduction (above), as well as from a short essay on Lazarus and her sonnet from American Studies at the University of Virginia. More extensive biographical resources are available in History Makers: Emma Lazarus an exhibit of her life and contributions with an analysis of the poem, "The New Colossus," from the Jewish Women's Archive a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.
  • Read and discuss the poem. What comparison does Lazarus make between the American statue and the famous Colossus of the ancient world? How is this new statue different? What did people in 1883 think of the statue and how was Emma Lazarus asking them to change? Why should her poem persuade a person to donate money to bring the statue to America?
  • To the extent that it will help students understand the historical context of Lazarus's sentiments and prepare them for the writing exercises below, discuss the issue of immigration during the last few decades of the nineteenth century. For relevant web resources on immigration, see the sources listed in the last bulleted item in Preparation Instructions, above. Use these resources to find information on the following key terms and concepts for a discussion of immigration in the last few decades of the nineteenth century:
    • Rapid growth of cities and increasing need for new laborers
    • 25 million immigrants to U.S. in the 50 years after the Civil War
    • Poor housing in cities and city services unable to keep pace
    • In 1881, violent pogroms against Jews in Russia, and against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) between 1890s and 1920
    • Other reasons for leaving include poverty and hope for a better life
    • Chinese workers attacked in San Francisco in the 1870s because of a perception that they were taking jobs from Americans
    • In 1882, Chinese Exclusion Act bars Chinese immigrants
    • Nativists and nativisim
    • The idea of assimilation and the notion of U.S. as a "melting pot"
Activity 4. Persuading the American Public: Writing a Letter

Assign, or allow students to choose, one of the following writing scenarios. Add to, subtract from, or otherwise adapt the text of each assignment according to your students' needs and level of preparation:

  • Scenario 1: The year is 1885, and Joseph Pulitzer has not yet begun his successful campaign to fund the pedestal for Bartholdi's statue. Hoping to garner support for the pedestal fund, you write a letter for a newsletter on the arts that will be read by many of New York's wealthiest patrons. Your friend, Emma Lazarus, has shared with you a sonnet she wrote on the subject, and has given you permission to paraphrase or quote freely from her poem. Thus far, however, wealthy New Yorkers have been reluctant to donate to the pedestal fund. Privately, many of these people have shared with you (for you are yourself one of these wealthy patrons) some of their concerns:
    - "I don't understand the symbolism of this statue. It seems to me a mishmash of conflicting symbols. What holds it all together? Why is there a crown? A torch?"
    - "Why on earth is the statue to be facing out over the ocean? Shouldn't it face towards land, where the people of New York can enjoy it?"
    - "What will this do for the city of New York? Wouldn't my money be better invested in another museum, or a university?"

  • Scenario 2: The year is 1876, and not a penny has yet been raised in the U.S. to support the statue. You are a hardworking, middle-class citizen of Kansas City, Missouri, who by chance met up with Bartholdi on his 1871 trip across America (you can read about this trip in the American Park Network essay). His vision of the statue and of the American nation impressed you, and you want to share it with others in your city. So you decide to write a letter to your local paper, addressing all the citizens of Kansas City. In recent days, however, articles and letters to the paper have expressed the following sentiments:
    -"Why should we support a statue in New York City? What has this got to do with Kansas City?"
    -"The money would be better spent to support all the poor people crowded into New York slums."
    -"Let the rich pay for it. New York has plenty of wealth and they should pay for the statue."

  • Scenario 3: The year is 1883, and the Chinese Exclusion Act has just passed. You are a writer living in San Francisco and you have been concerned about the fate of new immigrants to this country since the 1870s when you witnessed attacks on Chinese workers by citizens who thought that they were "stealing American jobs." The local newspaper invites you to write a short piece on the national effort to fund the statue of Liberty. So you travel East, and attend a benefit art auction where a poem by Emma Lazarus is read. You find the ideas in the poem very striking, and decide to work them in to a short newspaper article that will: 1) describe Bartholdi's "Liberty Enlightening the World" for readers who may be unfamiliar with the project; 2) explain Emma Lazarus' position to an audience who may have rather less favorable views of immigration. Since you are commissioned as a "travel writer" and not an ordinary journalist, you are encouraged to write in a personal style and insert whatever commentary you think might be of interest to your San Francisco audience.

Extending The Lesson

Writing assignment: E Pluribus Unum

Assign students to small groups, each of which contains at least one representative from each of the three audiences described above. Tell students that their group is a "blue ribbon panel" selected by the President to draft a statement that will be read at the inauguration of the Statue of Liberty in 1886. Their statement should be entitled E Pluribus Unum, and it should be addressed to everyone living in the U.S., rich and poor, urban and rural, citizen and noncitizen, of every race, gender, religion, geographical region, and country of origin. The statement should explain the meaning of the statue and why it is an important symbol for all Americans.

Related EDSITEment Lesson Plans

"The Statue of Liberty: the Meaning and Use of a National Symbol" (grades 3–5)
"I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Someone a Letter" (grades 3–5)

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Time Required

4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Expository writing
  • Internet skills
  • Poetry analysis
  • Research
  • Synthesis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing