On this day in 1886, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York Harbor. Designed by Frédéric Bartholdi, the statue was a gift of France and a kind of promise, following the repressive regime of Napoleon III, to recommit to the principles of liberty.
The connection to Virginia is twofold. The New York Times reminds us that Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet “The New Colossus” (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”) has become synonymous with the statue, was descended from the man who once wrote a letter to George Washington welcoming him to Newport, Rhode Island. Lazarus biographer Esther Schor explains that in 1790, Lazarus’s great-great uncle Moses Seixas, a Newport merchant, wrote Washington on behalf of the Touro Synagogue:
Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship …
Washington responded with the assurance that Jews were welcome and free members of the American community. Schor write: “The collaborative vision of Washington and Emma Lazarus’s ancestor Moses Seixas—to live not only with civil rights, not only free to worship, but also without fear—has been the presumption of American Jewry from that day to this.”
On the Times‘s comment board, Encyclopedia Virginia contributor Henry Wiencek takes that Washington-Lazarus connection a bit further:
It is intriguing to learn of Emma Lazarus’s distant connection to George Washington because her poem perpetuates a vision for the American future Washington expressed in 1783, when he exulted over the success of the Revolution: “for, happy, thrice happy shall they be pronounced here after, who have contributed any thing … in protecting the rights of human nature and establishing an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions.”
In the meantime, there’s a second Virginia connection in all this, one we pointed out some time back: Constance Cary Harrison, the blue-blooded Virginia writer, may have been the one to convince Lazarus to write her poem in the first place.
But regardless of whether the whole world revolves around Virginia, this day belongs to Lady Liberty. Happy birthday!
A version of this post was originally published on October 28, 2011.
IMAGE: Liberty Sunset, 2005 by Judy Rey Wasserman