Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), is an aspiring literary critic as well as a revisionist historian. After issuing new draconian policies discriminating against poor immigrants resembling his Italian ancestors, he decided to show off the far-ranging interests of his multifaceted mind with his reinterpretation of the poem engraved inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, whose beacon welcomes “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”.
Cuccinelli insisted that the poem should be reworded to read: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.” Then, when asked by the CNN host Erin Burnett to explain his reason for changing the language, he offered his superior knowledge of its history.
“Well, of course,” he said, revealing a slight tone of exasperation, “that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe, where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.”
It’s not hard to imagine what the author of the poem would have thought of its mangling into a nativist credo. Emma Lazarus was born into privilege as the daughter of a wealthy New York family of German Jewish and Sephardic roots. The figure of Abraham Lincoln loomed over her childhood. One of her first poems was about the flight and death of John Wilkes Booth: “Thy brow is marked with the brand of Cain.”
Her early literary efforts were encouraged by the great liberal spirits of the age, William Cullen Bryant and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The young Lazarus became a follower of the popular social reformer against monopolies, Henry George. Awakened by the plight of poor Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, she became active in the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society and founded the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews.
The image on his pin was a copy of the great seal adopted by Virginia in 1861 and used on Confederate battle flags
Her poem The New Colossus, written in 1883, at the beginning of the wave of mass Jewish emigration of about 2.5 million people to the promised land, was inspired by first-hand experience with their hardships and horror at pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe. The plaque with the poem was affixed inside the base of the Statue of Liberty in 1903, 16 years after her death at 38 and at the same time as 49 Jews were murdered in the Kishinev pogrom in Russia. Lazarus’s close friend Georgina Schuyler, the art patron and the great-granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton, New York’s most famous immigrant, led the effort to install the plaque: “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Cuccinelli’s proposed correction of Lazarus’s poem was not his first attempt to alter patriotic symbols. Nearly a decade ago, he engaged in sleight of hand to shuffle in the Confederate version of the great seal of the commonwealth of Virginia.
In 2010, when he was state attorney general, Cuccinelli distributed lapel pins to members of his staff. “Office of the Attorney General Virginia” circled what purported to be the image of the great seal, the Roman goddess Virtus wearing a breastplate and standing with one foot on a prone tyrant, his crown fallen from his head. Observers noticed that the real great seal features Virtus wearing a toga and with her left breast bared. Was Cuccinelli, a denizen of the religious right, simply covering up the goddess for modesty’s sake? He joked that he was making Virtus “a little more virtuous”.
In fact, the image on his pin was a copy of the great seal adopted by Virginia in 1861 after secession and used on battle flags of Confederate regiments. After the local press caught the replication, Cuccinelli claimed his pin had been copied from another “antique” great seal. But the local “commander” of the Sons of Confederate Veterans praised him, saying: “The state is getting trumped by the federal government.”
Under pressure, Cuccinelli withdrew the pins. In 2013, he was defeated for governor and consigned to the bin of forgotten provincial politicians … until he was retrieved by Trump.
Cuccinelli’s imposition of a Confederate great seal and his chipping at the Statue of Liberty were of a piece. After Lincoln’s assassination, Édouard René de Laboulaye, a French jurist, historian and abolitionist, proposed the building of a monumental tribute to the US as an inspiration of liberal democracy throughout the world. During the civil war, Laboulaye wrote that “should liberty become eclipsed in the new world, it would become night in Europe”.
Lincoln was a liberal internationalist of his time who understood the US as the “last best hope of Earth”, standing against the old regimes and autocracies of Europe. When the Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth toured America after the failed democratic revolutions of 1848, Lincoln wrote the resolution passed by a committee in Illinois expressing its solidarity. In his first great speech, in 1854, against the extension of slavery, Lincoln warned: “Already the liberal party throughout the world, express the apprehension ‘that the one retrograde institution in America, is undermining the principles of progress, and fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw’.”
He loathed nativism at home as a species of the repression he saw abroad. If the Know Nothings ever took over, Lincoln wrote, “I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy”.
The Statue of Liberty was designed as a tribute to Lincoln’s Union. In her left hand she holds a tablet bearing the date of the declaration of independence, the document which proclaims “all men are created equal”, which Lincoln regarded as the constitutional framework for the nation. At her feet lie the broken shackles of slavery. In her right hand, Liberty holds aloft her light to struggling peoples everywhere.
Emma Lazarus brought her vision to Liberty in its original spirit. Cuccinelli seeks to deface Liberty with his stealth Confederate hostility.
Send him back to the classroom.
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of All the Powers of Earth 1856-1860, the third of his five-volume biography, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, to be published in September by Simon & Schuster