"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!'"
-- The New Colossus,
More than 100 years after "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation," and one score after President Abraham Lincoln reminded grieving kin of that historic event during a funeral of the fallen at Gettysburg, poet Emma Lazarus penned her immortal invitation to freedom, preserved for us on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty to this day.
As Lincoln, Lazarus, and "our fathers" knew, freedom is neither easily gained nor simply kept. Like fire, which survives only by setting something else afire, freedom retains its potency only when it is practiced and shared.
For nearly two centuries before that historic July day in Philadelphia, they came. Land was scarce in the old countries, crowding one family or cluster too close to another. National rivalries, powerful monarchies and fallout from the Protestant Reformation crowded opposing opinions too close together, too. So they risked the known for a promise, for land, for religious freedom, for a chance to shape a life and, incidentally, a nation anew.
The struggles were enormous, the fractures heartrending, and the years too many for early generations to reap what their dreams had sown. But they bequeathed their aspirations as well as their land to those who tilled the ground and molded a homeland until both yielded fruit, and the United States of America was born.
By the time Emma Lazarus took up her pen, attitudes in the land of the free had shifted from universal acceptance of each new wave of freedom-seekers to divided opinions over their welcome. At issue then, as it is today, was what the new nation should become. Would America be a true melting pot, with all arrivals conforming to predetermined standards of language and law? Or would ethnic groups be allowed to assemble across the land and duplicate the customs they left behind?
Eventually, hardliners insisting on a singular nation won the day. But lest this decision become so harsh as to drive the deserving away, voices arose urging America's arms to remain open to "the tired, the poor," and those "yearning to breathe free."
Emma Lazarus was the perfect person to write America's invitation to freedom. Though born in New York City, her Jewish heritage evoked a deep sorrow over the late 19th-century violence against Jews in Russia, which resulted in massive Jewish immigration to the United States.
She expressed her feelings best in poetry, especially in an emotional collection called Songs of a Semite, and those beautiful words on the Statue of Liberty.
In his article on immigration for The Oxford Compan-ion to United States History, Rudolph Vecoli writes that Lazarus and those who favored a liberal immigration policy "followed Christian and democratic ideals, (and) portrayed the United States as an asylum for the oppressed."
Although the same guide book which includes "setting the captives free" (Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4:18) also admonishes us to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16), the Christian ideals which once brought religious freedom seekers to America, and prompted a Jewish poet to keep her nation's arms open to the "homeless, tempest-tost," dominate those ideals.
Whether from planes or ships arriving at our cities and shores, or in campaigns of liberation that send our own citizens far away, whatever the difficulty, whatever the divided opinion, American freedom is not only imported today but exported to those who, without our sharing, might remain "huddled masses yearning to breath free."
(Barbara Seaborn is a local, free-lance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.