The Fourth of July will soon be upon us. If anyone was in doubt, the advertisements sporting patriotic symbols and sales purporting to be associated with the holiday have already started assailing the senses. Many articles of a more serious nature will also be appearing, reminding us of those individuals who, over two centuries ago, chose to battle what they perceived as injustice, and incidentally founded a new nation.
The Liberty Bell is one of the most recognizable symbols of this holiday, but there is another emblem of liberty that is probably recognized by more people abroad than our famous bell. Donated by the French and dedicated on July 4, 1886, the statue “Liberty Enlightening the World” is recognized world wide as a symbol of our devotion to the cause of liberty. Many of us have visited the statue, and enjoyed the views from her crown. Many of us have family members whose first view of this land was the welcoming light of the Lady; family members who came to claim her promise of liberty for all people. Visits into the statue were halted from 1984 through 1986 while the statue was restored and repaired. Today, those visiting the statue must obtain a limited ticket to go all the way into the crown. The attack on New York in 2001 and the fear of terrorism has accomplished what no war or civil unrest has been able to do, it restricted our access to our heritage.
The Lady is still accessible, as are the remains of Fort Wood. One of the earliest American forts (it was captured and burned by the British early in the Revolution, then rebuilt in the 1780s) can be enjoyed, and give the visitor an idea of life on the island in those earlier times. The island itself has become something of a shrine to the concept of liberty as it was embodied in the idea of our nation. The poem written by Emma Lazarus for the statue is engraved on a tablet mounted in the pedestal of the statue. While most people are familiar with some of the words, it has probably been awhile since you considered them.
The New Colossus
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 lightening, 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 breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest – tost to me, I lift my lamp
Beside the golden door.
Since its original lighting, the lamp held in Liberty’s right hand has not been extinguished. When New York had its famous “brown out” problems in 1965, New Jersey provided the power to keep liberty aflame. The inscription on the tablet held in her left hand is “July 4, 1776”, believed by many to be the date that liberty became the belief of a nation.
In many ways, our national belief in Liberty seems to have become shaken. We trot out the concept to counter regulations we don’t want, but as soon as something goes wrong for us, we chant “there ought to be a law.” We forget that the only way government can wholly protect us is to allow government to make all our choices, and limit what is available. We have handed over our medications, foods, materials for building and for childrens’ clothes – all of these are “checked” by a government agency for safety. In what other areas are we willing to sacrifice the liberty of choice for protection and safety? For decades we believed that we had a special immunity from those who did not like us; they could demonstrate all they liked, and it would not touch us. We have learned that this “immunity” does not exist – and it has shattered our confidence.
When President Grover Cleveland accepted the Statue in 1886, he commented “we will not forget that Liberty here made her home, and we shall not allow her chosen alter to be neglected.” There have been times in the history of our nation that we have allowed the image of liberty to become tarnished, at times through government action, and at times by the actions of individuals.
The liberty that makes the United Stated is not the sole responsibility of her elected leaders, it is the responsibility of each of us. When we allow fear or distrust of others because of their national origin to control our actions, we tarnish the glow of the lamp. Most of the people who streamed past the Statue through Ellis Island had very few possessions and little to commend them other than a willingness to work. Given the opportunity to do what they could, they did well for themselves, and strengthened the nation at the same time. Despite prejudice and hardship, they persevered, overcame, and we are proud to call them and their children Americans.
While we have a duty to defend our borders, and to try to avoid tragedies such as the ones of September, 2001, we also have a sworn duty to liberty. Are we still willing to accept the tired, poor, huddled masses and wretched refuse of the world, or are we ready to shut down more than the physical visits to Liberty? There are hard questions ahead for a nation that has always been secure in her isolation, and the answers will need to come from each of us.
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .