In the 245 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed, the United States has seen a tremendous amount of change. From the days of George Washington and horse-drawn carriages to Joe Biden and driverless cars, the world today would be almost completely unrecognizable to the Founding Fathers. Hopefully, the values that inspired them to break away from British rule are still recognizable, however, though most people probably take them for granted. In the grand scheme of history, 245 years is not such a long time, and especially when compared to Greece with its history stretching back thousands of years, the United States is still a relatively young nation.
Early on, the U.S. captured the imagination of people from all over the world “yearning to breathe free,” as noted in the Emma Lazarus poem The New Colossus written in 1883 to raise money for the construction of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish descent, Lazarus worked as a volunteer helping with refugees who had been detained by immigration officials on Wards Island. The experience influenced her writing and the depiction of the Statue of Liberty as the “Mother of Exiles.” By August 1885, the pedestal was fully funded and Lazarus’ poem was soon forgotten. The Statue of Liberty opened in 1886 without any mention of the poem. Lazarus passed away, probably from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, at the age of 38 in 1887. Her friend, Georgina Schuyler organized an effort in 1901 to memorialize Lazarus and her poem. In 1903, the poem was cast in bronze and placed inside the pedestal’s lower level.
The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus
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 “Mother of Exiles” is a potent symbol, for all those immigrants who came to the United States in search of a better life. The contributions immigrants have made to the nation should not be underestimated or undervalued, and while there is a serious need for reform to bring the immigration system up to date, the policy should not conflict with the core values upon which the nation was built. The famous sentence from the Declaration of Independence sums up those values:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It should also be noted that many nations around the world have based their declarations of independence on the U.S. version, so that the ideals of democracy, liberty, equality, spread to countries in Central and South America, Europe, and as far as New Zealand and its 1835 Declaration of Independence.