Emma Lazarus, c. 1872

It’s at this time of year that Emma Lazarus, whose New Yorker parents maintained a summer home in Newport, gets a lot of publicity for her Statue of Liberty poem and its image of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

But she wasn’t the first in her family to write immortal patriotic words, although the two achievements came nearly a century apart.

 Her famous work, annually invoked as the nation celebrates its birthday, are unusually poignant this year during the upheaval over the police murder of George Floyd and his entreaties that “I can’t breathe.”

Her poem, “The New Colossus,” was conceived in charity. While Lady Liberty herself was a gift from France, the base was to be paid for by Americans – and in 1883 poets were invited to submit works to be auctioned as fundraisers for the cause. The Lazarus entry was later cast onto a bronze plaque and installed in the pedestal.  

In addition to her enduring words for the statue, Lazarus immortalized a corner of the City by the Sea with her poem about Touro Synagogue, “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” memorializing the 1763 structure that is now the oldest existing synagogue in the nation. 

She wrote her poem in 1867, at a time when Newport’s Jewish community had dwindled, and the synagogue was largely closed. But her interest in it was understandable – Lazarus was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish couple who could trace their American ancestry back to the earlier years of Touro.

As many Americans know, in 1790 the congregation received an oft-quoted letter from George Washington that’s re-read annually because of its famous reference to a government “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…”

Those impressive words may have flowed from Washington’s pen, but they did not originate with him.

The byline actually goes to Moses Seixas, Touro’s warden at the time who was also the maternal great-great uncle of Emma Lazarus. 

Touro’s website recounts how Washington visited Newport on August 17, arriving that morning with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and other dignitaries. Community leaders gave him a rousing welcome that included a speech by Seixas containing those famous words renouncing bigotry. 

A few days after his visit, Washington wrote a historic letter of thanks that echoed the exact words of Seixas. 

The president’s missive was particularly cherished because it specifically noted that Judaism had a place in the new nation: “May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants.”  

As a paean to religious liberty, Washington’s words have been revered and repeated ever since, but the modern-day Touro account of his visit recognizes this irony: “Included in the throng that greeted Washington may have been some of Newport’s slaves, for individuals of African descent made up one-quarter to one-third of Newport’s population during the colonial period.”

This would have been an interesting meet-up, since both Washington and Jefferson were significant slaveholders.

That’s one of the historical contradictions under scrutiny as our nation engages in deep discussion following the disturbing events of recent months.

One wonders if Moses Seixas and his great-great niece would be surprised that their famous lines touched on issues still persisting as we celebrate a Fourth of July so long after their time.

But this is for sure: In Newport, Washington recognized eloquence when he heard it and eagerly put it to use. Forty-four presidents later, that appreciation of language should resound as an object lesson: Words matter.

Gerry Goldstein (gerryg76@verizon.net), an occasional contributor to What’s Up Newp and What’s Up Rhode Island, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist who has been writing for Rhode Island newspapers and magazines for 60 years.