Producer Jess Engebretson explains how the Statue of Liberty gained new meaning in American life – as a symbol of immigration – as it developed its distinctive green patina, with help from political scientist Peter Skerry. Read more here.
Correction: President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech on the 50th Anniversary of the Statue of Liberty is described in this piece as lacking references to immigration. There is, in fact, some mention of immigration in the speech – delivered in 1936 – but the emphasis is on the past. The implication seems to be that immigration restrictions are now necessary and the US should move forward as a nation drawing on the population already here. You can read the full text of the speech here.
**This transcript comes from an early broadcast of this episode. There may be changes.**
BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory, the show that looks to history to explain the America of today. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, we’re reflecting on episodes in American history that have something to do with the color green.
BRIAN: Our next story focuses on perhaps the most iconic green object in America, the Statue of Liberty. What you may not know is that the statute didn’t start out green. When it was installed in New York Harbor in 1886, the statue was actually brown, copper to be exact. Over the years, the copper oxidized. And by 1910, Lady Liberty had developed an interesting mottled look, half brown and half green. By 1920, she was completely covered in that familiar green patina.
PETER: At the very same time, the statue was also undergoing a transformation in meaning. Though today we associate the Statue of Liberty with immigration, Americans at the dedication ceremony were not much concerned with welcoming the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. BackStory producer Jess Engebretson has the story of how the statute changed from an austere symbol of republican values to a monument known as the Mother of Exiles.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: It all started in 1865 at a French dinner party near Versailles. The guests, mostly intellectuals and artists, were not fond of the current French government, a repressive regime headed by Emperor Napoleon III. They wanted to find some way to celebrate the values important to them.
PETER SKERRY: We’re talking about liberal values.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: This is Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Boston College.
PETER SKERRY: Individual rights, the importance of freedom of the press, freedom of speech.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: Those values were not flourishing in France. But they did seem to be flourishing in the US, 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.
PETER SKERRY: 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.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: Nor were Americans particularly pushing the idea of US as refuge. 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.
So 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.
MALE SPEAKER: “There is room in America and brotherhood for all who will support our institutions and aid in our development. But those who come to disturb our peace and dethrone our laws are aliens and enemies forever.”
JESS ENGEBRETSON: Three years later, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly wrote a similarly anxious poem about the statue, its title “Ungarded Gates”
FEMALE SPEAKER: “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. Have a care less–”
JESS ENGEBRETSON: Of course today there’s another poem associated with the Statue of Liberty.
FEMALE SPEAKER: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
JESS ENGEBRETSON: This sonnet was written by Emma Lazarus to commemorate the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing violence in Russia. It was auctioned off to help support the Statue of Liberty’s installation, but it didn’t have a direct connection to the statue until 17 years later when a friend of Lazarus had a plaque made.
PETER SKERRY: And 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.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: 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. But meanwhile, Lady Liberty was as popular as ever.
PETER SKERRY: On the 50th anniversary of the statute, which would have been 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to celebrate that 50th anniversary. And nothing was mentioned about Emma Lazarus’ sonnet. Nothing was mentioned about immigration or refugees.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: But 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 US 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.
PETER SKERRY: In 1945, the bronze tablet with the Emma Lazarus sonnet on it that had been inside the pedestal in a rather obscure place was removed and put outside in a prominent place beside the main entrance to the statue.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: The move solidified the association between immigration and the statute. Lady Liberty was no longer the white Goddess. Instead, she was the Mother of Exiles. And in 1965, the restrictive quota system was replaced by a new law, the baseline for current immigration policy. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed that bill into law, he did so, where else, at the Statute of Liberty.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: 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 gleans more brilliantly in the light of an increased liberty for the people from all countries.
BRIAN: Jess Engebretson is one of our producers. Helping her tell the story was Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Boston College. We’ll link to his article about the Statue of Liberty’s changing meaning at backstoryradio.org.