“Originalism” Run Amuck

Posted on August 4, 2017 by

Blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert

A pair of chromolithograph cutouts, featuring immigrant families in New York, the Statue of LIberty in the background. JMM K2016.3.4

A pair of chromolithograph cutouts, featuring immigrant families in New York, the Statue of LIberty in the background. JMM K2016.3.4

This week’s remarks by White House policy advisor Steven Miller seeking to disassociate the Statue of Liberty from the poem by Emma Lazarus at its base has touched a nerve for many people.  On the extreme right it has led to a spate of anti-Semitic tweets and posts directed at the historic figure of Emma in specific, and at Jewish support for immigration more generally.  In the media it has resulted in a number of clever lampoons, perhaps none more pointed than the recent “rewriting” of the Lazarus poem by Stephen Colbert.

I wanted to pull back for a moment and look at what this exchange says about the way we understand history and especially historic icons.  At the heart of Miller’s argument is the notion that an icon, symbol or manifesto belongs to the people who originate it, and that subsequent use or abuse or amendment is irrelevant.  I am fully committed to the investigation of the origins of everything, from the American Revolution to lox and bagels – believing that an understanding of how things begin can yield useful information about often complex relationships.  But I also believe it is a fallacy to ignore the subsequent history or even treat it as of secondary importance.  After all, if the American Revolution had only resulted in a change in British tax policy would anyone remember it ever happened?

"Liberty enlightening the world," courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Liberty enlightening the world,” courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Origins can be benign and then perverted.  I am reminded of the fact that the swastika was a Sanskrit symbol of “good fortune” centuries before it was used by the Nazis.  This does not mean that someone in the 21st century who scribbles it on a wall is wishing me good fortune.

In the opposite direction, origins can be tactical and transformed by time into powerful icons.  The Emancipation Proclamation is introduced by Lincoln as a “war measure”, a promise of economic punishment to the Confederacy and a means of recruiting African-American troops.  Time and again, the argument has been made that few slaves were actually freed as a result of the Proclamation.  This ignores the fact that at the time it is finally issued, the Proclamation had become a galvanizing symbol for a promise of freedom yet to come.

"Emancipation from Freedmen's viewpoint"; illustration from Harper's Weekly 1865. Via.

“Emancipation from Freedmen’s viewpoint”; illustration from Harper’s Weekly 1865. Via.

In the case of the Statue of Liberty, a token of international friendship, a gift of the government of France, was transformed into a powerful symbol of welcome by generations of immigrants.  As several commentators have pointed out the Lazarus poem actually predates the installation of the statue.  Its use in a fundraising campaign for the pedestal is an indication that even at the point of origin there was some thought that the statue would serve the function of welcoming newcomers.  The millions who came around the Statue to Ellis Island reinforced the message of the poem both before and after it was formally attached to the statue.

Manuscript of the sonnet "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, dated 1883.  Via.

Manuscript of the sonnet “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, dated 1883. Via.

When those immigrants became citizens they attained equal status with those who had been on this continent since before the Revolution.  Their children and grandchildren helped shape the great nation we have become.  We fulfilled the promise of the poem, creating a home for those “yearning to breathe free” and we should not easily let it be demeaned as an afterthought.

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