he 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was celebrated this week. True to the predictions of Ben Franklin, it was celebrated nationwide with parades and illuminations, even in the tiny village of Goodland, where a summertime population of about 370 people managed to make a racket and briefly light up the skies. Most of the 326 million people living in the United States today celebrated right along with us. They have come to live here from virtually every country on earth. Whether because of political oppression or poverty, they arrive on our shores to make better lives for themselves and for their children. Virtually every person in this country is a recently arrived immigrant or a descendent of one. When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, it was estimated that only 2.5million people lived in the original 13 colonies. Since that time, by one estimate, 72 million immigrants have come to live here. The descendants of those immigrants, plus those of the 2.5 million original residents, have made us the most prosperous and free nation in history.
Our immigrants were not always welcomed with open arms. There has always been a push back from factions who thought they were taking jobs from Americans and diluting American values. In 1856, the, Know Nothing Party even ran a candidate for president on a platform of curbing immigration. In the mid-19th century, severe famine in Ireland brought a flood of Irish immigrants to the U.S. Reviled, both for their willingness to work for low wages as well as their Roman Catholic religion, ubiquitous caveats appeared in store windows and classifiedads advising “No Irish need apply.” Today, St. Patrick’s Day has almost taken on the status of a national holiday. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese laborers from coming to America. Californians blamed them for a decline in wages. Today, the list of Chinese Americans who have distinguished themselves in virtually every facet of our culture is mind boggling in its length and breadth. The Immigration Act of 1924 created a quota system that curtailed the number of immigrants allowed from each country, favoring Western Europe and prohibiting immigrants from Asia. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality act abolished the quota system and allowed Americans to sponsor relatives from their countries of origin. This and ensuing legislation caused a shift in immigration patterns, which has resulted in today’s majority of Asian and Latin American immigrants. The largest bloc of these comes from Mexico, with Florida being the third largest destination state.
The push back against this migration now comes from a major American political party and more recently by a president who won election vowing to curtail immigration. Once again congress is enacting legislation to restrict immigrant entry into the U.S. This is nothing new and has always been a natural consequence of our democracy expressing its will. Whether it will permanently tar recent Mexican immigrants as illegals or undesirables is doubtful. The past has shown that ostracized groups of immigrants later became integral and contributing members of our society. This too will pass. Mexican food and beverages are sold and loved everywhere; Cinco de Mayo (in honor of an 1862 Mexican victory over the French) is now widelycelebrated in the U.S. We had a whopper Cinco de Mayo party in Goodland this May, complete with mariachi band and panoply of Mexican dishes. The attendees were like a who’s who in Goodland. At least one local restaurant also celebrated the day. As with the Irish, we have come to love our Mexican-American culture. And so it is good to remember the origin of our independence, and the promise of redemption our new nation gave to the world. The promise of America has been eloquently enunciated by some of our greatest statesmen, and by an obscure 19th century New York poet, who wrote perhaps the most stirring tribute of all.
Thomas Jefferson, our third president and George Washington’s secretary of state, was called upon to list the reasons for breaking away from the United Kingdom.In his July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are the bedrock principles upon which are country was founded and could be the most well known and most oft quoted lines in any government document in history. These sentiments were echoed by President Franklin Roosevelt, in speech to Congress in January 1941, which became known as the Four Freedoms Speech. In it he enumerated the four freedoms, inherent in Jefferson’s “inalienable rights” – the first two, freedom of speech and freedom of worship, are enshrined in the Constitution, but Roosevelt added two more – freedom from want and freedom from fear. The world order was changing and Roosevelt wanted the public to know that if push came to shove, these freedoms were worth fighting for. He wasn’t the first president to showcase our freedoms for the purpose of rallying Americans during time of national crisis. In his immortal and soaring Gettysburg Address of 1863, Lincoln got right down to it in the opening lines, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.’” Lincoln said, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” Lincoln’s peroration clearly proclaimed that Jefferson’s “inalienable rights” were worth fighting for.
In 1885,a French steamer unloaded the ponderous unassembled pieces of the 151 foot copper Statue of Liberty onto a New York wharf. It was a gift from the French people to commemorate the close association of our two countries during the Revolutionary War. The French liked the way the U.S. had turned out and wanted to express their appreciation. The statue was to be erected on an island in New York Harbor to be a literal beacon of welcome to those coming to America for a better life. The French had paid for the statue, now it was up to the U.S. to pay for the pedestal, on which it was to sit. Fundraising for this had begun years earlier and was done primarily in the City of New York.
In 1983, as part of those fundraisingefforts, the 34-year-old Emma Lazarus, an obscure poet, (but fairly well known in New York) was asked to write a sonnet which would be sold at auction beside the writings of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. The result was “The New Colossus,” a 14-line sonnet, which as a whole was a powerful and stirring expression of the promise of America’s freedom and big heart. It was the concluding five lines however, which would later inspire future waves of immigrants. Attributing the words to the statue’s silent lips, she wrote:
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-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Sadly for Lazarus, who died at age 39 in1889, her words gained little notice at the time and did not appear on the statue itself until 1903, after a friend discovered a copy of her sonnet in a New York bookstore. She wasn’t mentioned by President Grover Cleveland at the statue’s dedication in 1886, nor was her sonnet noted in her obituary. In 1903, a plaque containing her heartfelt words (she had been an untiring advocate for the admission of persecuted immigrants) was placed prominently on an inner wall of the pedestal, where millions of visitors have been moved by her impassioned paean to the goodness of America.
Barry was a practicing attorney before he worked as a Special Agent of the FBI for 31 years. Barry worked for several government agencies another ten years before retiring to Goodland in 2006. Barry is presently the Secretary of the Goodland Civic Association.