Cuccinelli, Lazarus, and Morse

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In a recent interview ("Immigration Chief: 'Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor Who Can Stand On Their Own 2 Feet'", NPR 8/13/2019), the director of the Citizenship and Immigration Service suggested an update to the poem on the Statue of Liberty:

Q: Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus's words, etched on the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor", are also part of the American ethos?
A: Uh they certainly are — "Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge."

In a later interview the same day, Ken Cuccinelli suggested that when Lazarus wrote about "your tired, your poor, […] the wretched refuse of your teeming shore", she didn't mean that those people were actually indigent:

Well of course 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.

But the history is more complicated.

In the first place, complaints about the public cost of caring for poor immigrants extend well back into the period that Cuccinelli is referring to. In 1834, more than 40 years before the Statue of Liberty was created, and nearly 50 years before Emma Lazarus wrote The New ColossusSamuel F.B. Morse  wrote a series of articles in the New York Observer about the dangers of unrestricted immigration. When these articles were published in 1835 as "Foreign conspiracy against the liberties of the United States", Moorse added a four-page note giving statistics about the costs of supporting "foreign paupers":

     The expense incurred in this city (New York) for the support of foreign paupers, it is well known, is enormous. In Philadelphia more than three-fourths of the inmates of their Almshouse are foreigners. Whole families have been known to come from on board ship and go directly to the Almshouse. In the Boston Dispensary there were the last year, (1834,) from two districts only, 477 patients; of these 441 were foreigners ! ! leaving but 36 of our own population to be provided for. In the Boston Almshouse the following returns show the increase of foreign paupers in five years:
The year ending Sept. 30, 1829, Americans 395 Foreigners 284
The year ending Sept. 30, 1834, Americans 340 Foreigners 613
Thus we see that native pauperism has decreased in five years, and foreign pauperism more than doubled.
     In Cambridge (Mass.) more than four-fifths of the paupers are foreigners.

His conclusion?

Wc must first stop this leak in the ship, through which the muddy waters from without threaten to sink us. If we mean to keep our country, this life-boat of the world, from foundering with all the crew, we will take on board no more from the European wreck until we have safety landed and sheltered its present freight.

According to Wikipedia, those "muddy waters" were mainly Irish and German:

Between 1831 and 1840, immigration more than quadrupled to a total of 599,000. These included about 207,000 Irish, starting to emigrate in large numbers following Britain's easing of travel restrictions, and about 152,000 Germans, 76,000 British, and 46,000 French, constituting the next largest immigrant groups of the decade.

Morse's main concern was what he saw as a cultural replacement conspiracy:

That a vigorous and unexampled effort is making by the despotic governments of Europe to cause Popery to overspread this country, is a fact too palpable to be contradicted.

But like other anti-immigration voices before and since, he also made an economic argument.

For a clearer picture of the relationship of Emma Lazarus's poem to the history of American immigration policy, see Rebecca Onion, "The Complicated History of Emma Lazarus’ 'The New Colossus'", Slate 8/15/2019, which observes that "The poem has never represented America’s immigration policy. It’s always been aspirational." Rebecca Onion interviews Lazarus's biographer, Esther Schor:

Rebecca Onion: How does this fit into what people were saying about the refugees in the larger discourse? This was sort of an intervention on her part, against some sort of denial of their right to come here?

Esther Schor: Another context for this is that there had been some very well-publicized anti-Semitic incidents in the late 1870s. This affected her circle of affluent Jews. [Banker] Joseph Seligman was refused rooms at a hotel in Saratoga Springs, a hotel where her father stayed. So this got a lot of press, and the American Jewish community was especially wary about anti-Semitism. They had sort of united around this and embraced the Sephardim, the German Jews, but this new flow of refugees was putting this all to the test. They were not German Ashkenazi Jews, they were Eastern European Jews, they were absolutely impoverished and dependent.

And they were put in a “refuge.” They were taking advantage of housing subsidies, as we might say. This is what they were doing in order to take one first step forward toward immigration. And it was a crucial first step forward to be provided food and shelter and then gradually, they were assimilated into the community in New York and a lot of other places.

So, this was the context. Most of the noise is in the Jewish community about these Jewish refugees. At least, that’s what you hear magnified when you follow Emma Lazarus’ life. That’s the conversation she was tuned into, and there was a lot of anxiety, enormous anxiety about what they called “the army of Jewish paupers.” The idea was that if they became a public charge, or even worse, became involved in criminal activity, that it would lead to a really strong wave of anti-Semitism, and it would really be a disaster for the Jewish community.

It's easy to find similar concerns about Mr. Cuccinelli's Italian ancestors, or at least the group they represented — thus Humbert Nelli, "Italians in Urban America", The International Migration Review, 1967, starts this way:

Nearly four million Italians entered the United States between 1890 and 1920, the period of large-scale Italian immigration to this country. Contemporaries expressed deep concern about the influx of this alien horde, composed, many claimed, of criminals, paupers, ignorant peasants and illegal contract laborers, all congregated in closely-packed colonies where they perpetuated old world traits and compounded urban problems.


  1. R. Fenwick said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 7:25 am

    Morse's main concern was what he saw as a cultural replacement conspiracy

    So in other words, plus ça change, eh? :(

  2. Leo said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 8:27 am

    Esther Schor's reference to "the Sephardim, the German Jews" threw me for a minute until I realised she meant the Sephardim AND the German Jews.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 8:50 am

    Leo: I have the feeling that sentence means the German Jews had sort of united about this and embraced the Sephardim. That "right dislocation" is said to be characteristic of "Hebonics", though I don't think or my family members do it.

  4. Leo said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 9:11 am

    Aha! That makes even more sense. I forgot I was reading a transcript; Schor's meaning was probably clearer when accompanied by intonation.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 9:12 am

    Fairly sure that this theme plays an important part in the second series of the American television series The Knick, depicting New York's Knickerbocker Hospital at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. Having first encountered the series on a long-haul flight (Etihad) from Abu Dhabi to London, The Knick is one of fewer than half a dozen television series in which I have been sufficiently interested to download and watch.

  6. Bloix said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 10:53 pm

    "that sentence means the German Jews had sort of united about this and embraced the Sephardim."
    No. The Sephardim in America had a far older pedigree than the German Jews. Emma Lazarus herself was Sephardic (literally
    "Spanish") – she was descended on both sides from the fabled 23 Jewish families who arrived in New Amsterdam from Brazil in 1654. German Jews began to arrive only in the first decades of the 19th century. Although they were Ashkenazi (literally "German"), and thus prayed according to a somewhat different rite and had differences in ritual practices that would seem trivial to an outsider but were important to believers, the Sephardim fully accepted the German Jews into their community and inter-married with them. Like the New York Sephardic community, the German Jews were educated, more or less secular, and prospered in business, the arts, and the professions.

  7. Leo said,

    August 20, 2019 @ 2:58 am

    Bloix: In the sentence beginning "They had sort of united around this…", who should we interpret to be the "they" who "embraced the Sephardim" – "the American Jewish community", or "the German Jews"?

  8. Bloix said,

    August 20, 2019 @ 9:34 am

    Leo – I suspect there's a transcription error – that Schor mispoke and corrected herself, and the transcriber didn't realize that's happened and typed both words. This follows logically from the anecdote about Seligman, who was a German Jewish immigrant who started out as a storekeeper and became a wealthy financier who was nonetheless subject to anti-Semitic discrimination.. So what she likely said was, "They [the Sephardic community] had sort of united around this [the rise of anti-Semitism] and embraced — the Sephardim — the German Jews — [correction], but this new flow of refugees was putting this [the unity of the different religious and cultural strands of the Jewish community] all to the test.

    The point is that the established Jewish community in NY, which followed the Sephardic rite, nonetheless accepted the Ashkenazic German Jewish immigrants who were culturally and economically similar to them as co-equals although religiously somewhat different,

    But the later Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants – who were also Ashkenazic – were seen by both the Sephardic community and the German Jews as different: utterly foreign, and appallingly so. Impoverished, uneducated, dirty, superstitious, hopelessly unassimilable, they were likely to give fuel even more anti-Semitism. Although the new immigrants spoke a kind of German, the German Jews viewed Yiddish not as a link but as a barbarous dialect and a sign of their backwardness. Many of the leaders of Jewish community in New York viewed the Eastern European immigrants as a pestilence and wanted to restrict immigration and to prevent them from settling in New York.

    Emma Lazarus, who had led an extraordinarily privileged and even charmed life – daughter of a rich and cultured family, a published poet at 18, translator of Schiller and Heine, protege of Emerson, correspondent of Henry James and Ivan Turgenev – reacted differently. She saw people who were literally wretched – they came to New York with nothing but their clothes, having fled the increasingly draconic anti-Semitic legal restrictions and mob violence of the Russian empire – and she worked personally in settlement houses for Russian Jewish immigrants, founded a technical high school, raised funds and awareness, and committed herself to the cause of improving their lives.

  9. Leo said,

    August 20, 2019 @ 11:22 am

    Bloix: Thank you for this enlightening explanation.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 20, 2019 @ 8:41 pm

    Bloix: Yes, thanks for the history. And this is a lesson to us all, the next time we're interviewed (which would be the first time in my case), to note explicitly when we make a correction.

  11. KevinM said,

    August 21, 2019 @ 6:17 pm

    Precisely why, annoying as it is, lawyers say "strike that." They don't want a correction to read like an appositive in the transcript.

  12. maidhc said,

    August 21, 2019 @ 11:54 pm

    As well as Morse's offensive racial views, he was not the inventor of the telegraph code to which his name has been attached.

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