Lifting the Lamp Beside the Golden Door

by W. D. Ehrhart

As I write this—July 4th, 2023—our nation is celebrating the 247th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  English settlers had first arrived along the Atlantic seaboard in 1607, and were soon joined by Dutch, Swedish, French, and more English settlers.  The Spanish had already colonized Florida and what is today New Mexico.  William Penn attracted Welsh and a large number of German settlers.  Early on, others began arriving from Africa in chains.

Even the people who were here when the Europeans arrived came from somewhere else, though a lot earlier.  We are indeed, as has so often been said, a nation of immigrants.  But though as school children, many of us learned that the United States is a “melting pot,” that melting pot has, from the very beginning, been fraught with conflict and violence and hatred.

The Spanish wiped out the French settlement in what is now St. Augustine.  The Powhatan Wars in Virginia began almost as soon as the English arrived, and wars against Native Americans went on almost continuously for another 280 years.  The Swedes were absorbed by the English, and the Dutch were conquered in a war with the English.

In the 19th century, Irish immigrants began to arrive in large numbers, resulting in creation of the American Party, called the “Know Nothings,” whose entire platform consisted mostly of keeping Irish immigrants out and disenfranchising those who were already here.  Into the 20th century, one could regularly see signs that said: “Help Wanted.  No Irish Need Apply.”

Later in the 19th century, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and it was not finally repealed until 1943.  In 1924, Japanese immigrants were banned entirely, and immigration from southern and eastern Europe was heavily restricted.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen thousands of Haitian migrants on rickety boats turned back out to sea by the U.S. Coast Guard on the orders of George H. W. Bush, a policy continued by Bill Clinton.  And now, of course, we have “that big beautiful wall” to keep out Central Americans fleeing the chaos and mayhem left in the wake of the Reagan Wars forty years ago.

Back when I was teaching U.S. history, I always did a unit on post-Civil War industrialization and immigration. Every year, I would give my students—high school juniors—these two poems written less than ten years apart in the late 19th century:

“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, 1883

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!”

 “Unguarded Gates” by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, 1892 *

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,

And through them presses a wild motley throng —

Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes,

Featureless figures of the Hoang-Ho,

Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, and Slav,

Flying the Old World’s poverty and scorn ;

These bringing with them unknown gods and rites,

Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws.

In street and alley what strange tongues are these,

Accents of menace alien to our air,

Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew !

O 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 down-trodden, but with hand of steel

Stay those who to thy sacred portals come

To waste the gifts of freedom. Have a care

Lest from thy brow the clustered stars be torn

And trampled in the dust. For so of old

The thronging Goth and Vandal trampled Rome,

And where the temples of the Cæsars stood

The lean wolf unmolested made her lair.

I would then ask my students to explain what is going on in these two poems written well over a century ago and almost simultaneously, and how the debate on immigration has changed—or not changed—since the late 19th century.

Most of the kids get it: the debate really hasn’t changed at all.  Instead of Asians and eastern Europeans, we now have Mexicans and Guatemalans.  But a significant number of Americans—though immigrants all—don’t really want the tired, poor, huddled masses of the world.  Some Americans militantly and violently don’t want them.

For too many Americans, Liberty remains a “white Goddess.”


W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Co.


* This is the second stanza of Aldrich’s poem.  The first stanza is a paean to the United States, a new Eden fruitful and abundant, where “the humblest man stand(s) level with the highest in the law.”

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