Two Ideals of Liberty — the Cuprous and the Constitutional — Contend with Colossus
Jewish poet and descendant of immigrants Emma Lazarus famously composed the words that were, in 1886, engraved on the imposing copper tribute to America’s embrace of immigrants:
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!”
“[T]he brazen giant of Greek fame” refers (as does the poem’s title) to Colossus, a bronze statue of the sun god, Helios, towering high above the harbor entrance at Rhodes. Erected in commemoration of the island people’s successful resistance against Greek forces, and forged in part from material left behind by the defeated enemy, the awe-inspiring figure looked down upon the traffic at the busy Aegean port. Colossus, like Liberty, featured an inscription — but its message conveyed more warning than welcome:
To you, O Sun, the people of Dorian Rhodes set up this bronze statue reaching to Olympus, when they had pacified the waves of war and crowned their city with the spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence. For to the descendants of Herakles belongs dominion over sea and land.
Drawing a contrast between the two icons, Emma would surely have recognized the tension between the second sentence of the Rhodesian inscription and those surrounding it. But earlier, pre-Enlightenment artists seem to have viewed Colossus as primarily a testimony to victory in battle, albeit with a dash of sentimentalist claptrap tossed in to appease the more sensitive, poetic types one might imagine encountering in Aristotelian Greece.
Having lost access to the original work (Colossus was destroyed by earthquake in the third century CE), medieval thinkers imagined the structure to have arched across the entire harbor entrance. Anybody wishing to navigate to a safe berth within the ancient port would have been unsubtly confronted with direct anatomical evidence of Rhodes’ military might, as they sailed directly beneath the figure’s presumably colossal masculinity.
By the late 19th century, however, as Emma put fountain pen (just becoming a mass-market product) to paper (ditto), the archaeological evidence was understood to suggest a somewhat more modest (yet still colossal) posture for the statue.
Obviously, then, it’s no coincidence that Emma took inspiration for her sonnet from contemporary conceptions of the ancient bronze figure; Liberty’s designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, had clearly done the same. And yet, both the sculptor and the poet saw the new Colossus as a tribute to thought rather than might. Liberty wields not a spear, but a book in her left hand. Her extended right hand doesn’t just hail new arrivals: it lights the path for them.
Like her ancient predecessor, Liberty glorifies victory; but, as evidenced by the inscription on the tome clutched firmly at her side — MDCCLXXVI  — the triumph she celebrates arises not from arms, but from minds. At long last, the “torch of freedom and independence” imagined by the ancient Rhodesian poet is reified both in art, through Liberty, and in ordinary life, through American independence.
One-hundred and thirty years later, spears and books compete still. The world has not yet evolved to become a place in which the idealist need no longer fear the strongman, and history offers little assurance that the mightiest nation of its day will use its resources to cultivate and defend the best hopes of mankind. But the American republic was founded on, and has traditionally defended, exactly such ideals: equality before the law, freedom of conscience, and government through consent of the governed.
So what happens, then, when the nation with strongest military force in human existence abandons those ideals? How shall we respond when a government arises without the consent of the majority (or even plurality) of the governed; when political speech is monitored and recorded; when disempowered minorities are denied the legal protections enjoyed by others?
Thanks to the 2016 election of a narcissistic sociopath as President, we are in the process of finding out. This neo-Colossus manqué would extend his conquering limbs beyond the limited platform of the presidency to stand astride America’s safe harbor. The tempest-tost masses huddled at the golden door will need first to contend with his drooping bronze Damoclean bollocks.
But it seems that perhaps the colossal despot’s stride is, like his hands, not quite as long as he would have us believe. Millions of Americans — actual millions, not alternative-fact millions — are responding. Carrying signs, donating funds, even penning modest essays on Medium, the people of the book emblazoned with MDCCLXXVI are stubbornly, noisily, and delightfully refusing to surrender.
In airports and town squares, on television and in courtrooms, Americans are stripping the emperor of his bronze armor to find he is actually no more than a hollow man, a stuffed man, hairpiece the color of straw — alas! And we recall that it is we who created this idol, this bronze calf, and it is within our power to destroy it as well.
Overhead the crowds of protesters at JFK, an airliner approaches. A few of the energetic yet peaceably assembled throng look to the sky, imagining, as one does, the lives and struggles and dreams of those about to land. For their part, the arriving passengers (seat belts fastened, seat backs and tray tables upright and locked) gaze through their clouded windows to be greeted by the reassuring glow of Liberty’s torch. No bronzed warrior wannabe warns them away; Liberty’s book is victorious for now. But the cohort of demonstrators, the planeload of hopeful travelers, and Liberty herself must remain alert, for many more battles lie ahead.