Ancient Greece had the goddess Hera. France was led into revolution and liberation by Marianna. The nation of Bavaria had Mother Bavaria.
For two centuries, anyone who saw Columbia thought of the United States. She was up and running as the symbol of liberty, freedom, and fairness a half-century before Uncle Sam or Brother Jonathan even had their names set to music, let alone materialize as drawings.
For half of Columbia’s life, she often appeared in support of Uncle Sam, reminding him of the idealized American values, eventually becoming reduced to arm candy and even worst, a complaining woman. Just as Uncle Sam ended up consuming Brother Jonathan, he also did away with loyal Miss Columbia.
Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam were conceived by Americans to counterpoint to John Bull, the caricature of Great Britain, but the origins of the “American Goddess” named Columbia was English.
Although the Massachusetts colony’s Chief Justice Samuel Sewall wrote a poem in 1697 which suggested the colonies be named “Columbina,” her identity as “Columbia,” symbol of the colonies, was first set down in writing by Samuel Johnson in a 1738 edition of England’s weekly The Gentleman’s Magazine and repeatedly used there for the next six years. It was derived by giving a classical Roman suffix to the famous discoverer of America’s name, Christopher Columbus.
Reference to her in the publication, read by the elite class of colonists, had an impact. By 1761, she was being referenced by Harvard College students in a poem written to mark the occasion of King George III’s coronation.
While there was a certain sarcasm in British lords using such an august name in reference to the scraggly little colonies, by the time of the American Revolution, the concept of Columbia had become something important and reverent, an American representative on Mount Olympus, a non-mortal female intended to represent the new concept of freedom from oppressive and unjust tyranny, the Goddess of Liberty.
In 1776, it was the African-American poet and writer Phyllis Wheatley who famously immortalized Columbia in poetic verse.
The first known physical entity honored with the name Columbia was a Massachusetts ship was built three years before the poem, but in the first years after the creation of the United States of America, New York dropped the royal reference in its King’s College and changed it to Columbia University. South Carolina used it to name its capital and five years later, in 1791, the newly-designated area for the central seat of government for the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government was declared to be the “District of Columbia.”
In the early years of the new American Republic and reaching mass fame during the War of 1812, the second American war with England, Columbia became ubiquitous and the true face of the rising nation.
She presented a fascinating dichotomy on notions of sexism and equality, and gave rise to a type of subversive feminism encouraged by the rich white men who founded the nation, concepts which had fed the Revolutionary War Era’s notion of the “Republican Mother,” as in the inward strength and outward fortitude of women in the new republic.
Like them, a woman’s influence was believed to be greatest by her values and principals serving as an example for her family and neighbors, mostly taking place in the home, and overseeing the educations of both men and women, inculcating them with one value above all else, to treat all others with respect and dignity, and give them the freedom to make their own choices.It was the lofty concept of human liberty.
In fact, not unlike the miraculous concept of the Holy Trinity’s Father and Son and Holy Ghost being separate entities but also the same entity, Columbia was soon assigned a daughter Liberty, who was simultaneously also Columbia, alongside the living but non-human being of the eagle, the symbol of braveness.
Interestingly, the iconography of neither Brother Jonathan or Uncle Sam appeared in the earliest imagery evoking Columbia and Liberty.
In fact, even before the United States had formed as a nation independent of Great Britain, she became the first female figure to appear on U.S. currency.
Shown seated on colonial farthings and half-pennies first minted in 1722 by Ireland’s William Woods, the Liberty version of Columbia.
Throughout the country’s history, even if a citizen didn’t read the illustrated newspapers or buy one of the tinted allegorical engravings which depicted her, they could always get a glance of their very one Mrs. America by checking out the coins in their pocket. She was seen everywhere in American life, even engraved and printed onto postal covers.
It wasn’t long before the societal notions of her gender’s natural attributes were assigned to Columbia.
While she could defend herself if attacked, she was never armed with musket, arrows or knives, but usually a shield with the national tri-colors.
Even during the War of 1812 her bayonet tip was covered, only to be removed in case of a real emergency. Once that war was over, the rod that was a bayonet became the staff of the American flag.
For above all else, Columbia was eager to promote peace and fairness among the humans she called her children.
She also inspired hope, wanting everyone to be the best they could be, she wanted everyone to have confidence that their individual future and the collective one of the nation would be wonderful.
And, while she would rather point out wrongs and shame people to recognize a truth, she could also rattle a sword or muscle a man around to let her restrained strength could be unleashed if necessary.
Unlike Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam, there was a degree of reverence and deference shown to this mythic ideal of the American woman, almost always addressed as “Miss Columbia,” or “Lady Columbia” when she was first making her presence known across the land.
Through all of the concepts about her role in public life, Columbia was also bestowed with the equal right to assume this role in public, a factor which would actually lead to her demise as a national ideal a century later.
Columbia was such a compelling national figure that she was honored by two separate songs. The first and most important was “Hail, Columbia.” Although Philip Phile had written the music for the “President’s March,” to be played at George Washington’s first inauguration in 1789, Joseph Hopkinson gave it meaning by writing the lyrics for it during the last of Washington’s eight years as President.
“Hail, Columbia” became such an overwhelmingly popular song that it was soon used everywhere in the United States as the unofficial national anthem.
Here is a strong version of it:
Although she kept her timeless toga to evoke her enduring values, the appearance of Columbia evolved in the decades following the War of 1812.
Her age was always indeterminate, young enough to embody the promise of long, long years ahead, old enough to show her wisdom and experience. For much of the 19th century, her toga was white and she wore a star-patterned sash that was usually blue, though sometimes red, sometimes a shawl.
Her chapeau also evolved. Initially, she often appeared without any hat or head piece, more representational of the natural wilderness of the colonies.
With the concurrent French Revolution’s Marianne personification, Columbia adapted her foreign sister’s “liberty cap,” an oddly-shaped horn of a hat, which looked like an upside-down apostrophe. Later on, Columbia is seen wearing a helmet, a laurel wreath and most significantly, a crown of stars.
For a brief period of time during the Civil War, Columbia was frequently seen in a Native American Indian feathered headdress, perhaps as a reminder of there being only one legitimate United States, referencing the original settlement of the land occupied by Native people.It might also have been a nod to the very earliest but unnamed female representation of the New World by Europeans, who drew a Native American woman, often seen riding an armadillo as the personification of this wilder world to them.
In at least her earliest years of the 19th century, Columbia as a goddess also had the ability to fly, a power which gave her the larger perspective of any situation and unique view of the vast land and the road ahead for her country.
In this context, her first great role in the American story after the founding of the nation had her encouraging the westward settlement of pioneers and the exploration of travel by ship.
In the 1840s, Columbia was among the most popular figurehead at the front of merchant ships, and seemed to lure sailors, travelers and explorers out onto the ocean with the promise of protection for safe passage.
Columbia’s association with brave ocean exploration by the U.S. was personified by the ship named for her, built in Massachusetts in the Revolutionary War era, which became legendary as the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe.
In honoring the ship by name, another popular song, written in 1843, referenced the symbol of the U.S., Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.
There was no greater sign that the United States was now setting an example for old Mother England than the fact that nine years later, the British stole the song about the ship named for Columbia and reworked it to honor of its own female personification and ship named for her, Britannia, the Pride of the Ocean.
If Columbia was now being used to push her people outward from the original thirteen colonies across the land to the Pacific and across the Pacific throughout the world, it was inevitable that she would soon show up on a the great and contentious social and political issues.
It was in the years immediately leading up to the Civil War that Columbia’s male counterpart, the tall top-hatted, striped-pants Brother Jonathan-evolving-into-Uncle-Sam, begins to assume a more frequent and political role in the nation’s weekly illustrated cartoons and newspapers, as something of an amalgam between the common man and his federal government.
Miss Columbia, however, still held herself above partisanship, loftily upholding the sanctity of principals, ideals and values. With the increasing presence of her male counterpart, however, she was soon assigned more traditionally female attributes, most closely associated with motherhood, such as keeping her children in line.
The very idea that some of her children would secede from the national family and live apart from those with whom they were raised was presented as shocking to her.
She would not tolerate it and in perhaps one of the only depictions of her in an act of violence, Columbia was even seen throttling a childish politician who was doing nothing to actively discourage the schism between North and South.
Once the South had seceded from the United States, however, Columbia began showing her mettle as a warrior, encouraging volunteers for the Union Army.
Whereas the trio of drummer, flutist and eye-bandaged patriots had embodied the “Spirit of ’76” during the American Revolution, it is now Lady Columbia who carries the banner for the “Spirit of ’61.”
In doing so, Columbia’s viewpoint found common ground with Brother Jonathan-Uncle Sam. and for the first time, Columbia gets cozy with him, as they cheer on the boys in blue, off to war to bring home the brothers gone wrong.
Throughout the Civil War, however, Columbia keeps her heart pure and uncompromising. Unlike Jonathan-Sam she never tries to pull any tricks to win the war, never negotiating with England or France for support. Among the many political cartoons which sought to illustrate the various political maneuverings often used by fellow Unionists and Republicans to undermine President Lincoln, she is never shown. Nor does she give Lincoln a free pass either, however, one cartoon even posing her as questioning Jonathan-Sam about his seeming petulance.
Although the weekly illustrated papers sought to depict the South by the caricature of Johnny Reb, there was no female equivalent born to present a parallel Confederate viewpoint for Columbia. She never stopped believing the South was wrong in leaving the national family and wasn’t above choking the Johnny Reb trolls, on the grounds of treason.
Once the war was over, however, Columbia’s inherent fairness and empathy was applied as equally to repentant Confederates as it was to African-American former slaves and those who fought for the Union. All she cared about was getting the family back together as one.
As the iconography of Uncle Sam became definitive in the Gilded Age, he seemed reluctant to give up wartime girlfriend Columbia.
For a time, it seemed like the perfect relationship between the U.S. federal government and the guiding principals of truth, fairness and liberty.
As the Industrial Age began producing new labor-saving gadgetry and massive immigration provided a glut of working-class domestic servants, middle-class and upper-class American women were afforded more time to undertake community work, outside the home.
Advertisements amusingly posed Sam and Columbia happily at home, using many of the electrified, modern items being manufactured by an immigrant labor class.
Sam, however, had not set up household with a little woman happy to live in a cocoon of blind, domestic bliss. She was not the sort of girl to see injustice and remain silent.
Uncle Sam may have consumed entirely the old Brother Jonathan personification of the common man, but Miss Columbia was now in the house to give the old man hell when he and the federal government he symbolized pulled some stunt or passed some law which undermined the well-being of the “average” citizen and their family.
Included in Columbia’s concern were also the masses of poor native Americans of all races, who existed on the fringes of society. And if that meant she now struck out at the captains of industry or political grafters who, in one way or another, exploited any human being, she was willing to do so, whether or not those individuals were pals of Uncle Sam.
The most dramatic point on which Columbia and Uncle Sam disagreed was on the issue of immigration.
In a remarkable display of doing the right thing, however unpopular and contrary it was to her bearded beau’s policy, Columbia was depicted in at least one cartoon introducing a Chinese immigrant to foreign leaders as one of her new children.
Even had there not been harsh anti-immigration laws enacted against the masses of Chinese immigrants lured by promises of good and reliable jobs helping to build the transcontinental railroad, her genuine egalitarianism presented an unusually progressive racial view, as if she was again seeing across time to the future.
Flexing her national muscles and proving them to be as powerful as Uncle Sam’s, Miss Columbia reached the zenith of her cult status during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, better known as the Great Chicago World’s Fair.
An extraordinary display of U.S. technology, art and architecture on display for the world, it announced the nation’s maturity in a way which placed her on a footing almost equal to that of old Europe.
Although the Chicago World’s Fair was named after a real person, Christopher Columbus to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of his “discovery of America,” it was the mythic Miss Columbia whose beaming image proliferated like never before.
For not only Americans but foreigners, however, her new brassiness might well have smacked of a dangerous hubris. Or simply a woman assuming a degree of power long held by men.
Paradoxically, Columbia’s compassion posed her as taking the lead on calling for intervention against the human atrocities being inflicted upon the Cuban people by Spain, its colonial ruler.
The 1898 political cartoons which assigned Columbia this political opinion closely reflected the polled views of American womanhood who called on President McKinley and Congress to act immediately and “liberate” the Cubans from Spain.
The Chief Executive, the single most powerful symbol of all elected national officials, was notoriously reluctant to take military action in Cuba, a point reflected in the single most startling political cartoon which included both Uncle Sam and Miss Columbia.
Sam the man is shown blissfully blind to the situation in Cuba, while Columbia the woman is open-eyed and open-armed in her willingness to face the crisis and do something about it.
A second cartoon depiction of the couple is also remarkable in that it showed Columbia the woman having a quiet word with Uncle Sam and successfully exercising her influence over him.
In this cartoon, she finally convinces Uncle Sam to take action against Spain, her earlier but ignored advice now being warranted by the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor (the likely mechanical problem which caused the ship to explode, rather than attack by the Spanish navy was not to be for proven as the likely reason for many years).
Without any sign of an “I-told-you-so” gloating, however, Columbia is only pleased to see Uncle Sam give the word and send the “Great White Fleet” to Cuba, as well as halfway around the globe to Manila Bay in the Philippine Islands where, while they were at it, the U.S. also liberated the Filipinos from the same oppressor.
Arm-in-arm, the man who represents the American government and the woman who represents the American people are seen happily waving off the U.S. Navy with a bon voyage for what was later called a “splendid little war.”
The depictions of Miss Columbia in the years immediately following the Spanish-American War, however, begin to represent the beginning of her end as a national personification.
In fact, it was only after Uncle Sam’s peace treaty with Spain that the greatest loss of life took its toll on American sailor and soldiers drawn into several years of bloody warfare with native Filipinos who believed the U.S. had come to liberate and help them form their own independent nation.
In essence, by adhering to her higher ideal of compassion for the suffering masses of Cubans, Miss Columbia unwittingly unleashed atrocities which decimated the entire Filipino population.
Not long after she was depicted in trumpeting “Peace!” to fellow women who represented the former Spanish colonies as Uncle Sam relaxes while believing the hard part is over, she was indicted by her shallow optimism.
And Miss Columbia paid for failing to recognize this complexity.
Increasingly, one finds examples of her being presented as girlishly naive and unrealistically optimistic about international politics and the new role of the U.S. as a world power.
In less than twenty years later, the United States was again drawn into a conflict across the sea.
This time, it was to aid its allies of England, France and Italy in fighting Germany during what became World War I.
This war, however, was all Uncle Sam’s. He was depicted as forthright, crisp, strong and decisive.
He did not share any national posters or iconography with Miss Columbia.
She was permitted to carry out her duty to country, but more as a submissive maternal figure, calling upon American boys to be brave and enlist, show her pride in them and to call on her daughters to get outside and raise their own vegetables to help in the war effort.
During World War I, Miss Columbia was given no chance to voice concerns about going to war, or having her sons kill the sons of her fellow female national personifications.
For the first time, there were multiple images showing this former peace advocate bearing the weaponry of war, a sleek sword. Toeing the line on patriotism, Columbia literally wrapped herself in the flag.
There was one rueful propaganda poster, however, which seemed to show what Uncle Sam really thought about his old girlfriend Columbia. It was a command a wake-up call to the nation boomed by some unseen figure. It was not Columbia who did the beseeching. She was, instead, shown unconsciously sleeping on her job.
Columbia’s last great role as the personification of the United States was a pretty grand one. She’s the co-star figure along with Britannica in a massive canvas depicting the end of World War I, all the national winners and losers also being personified by women. Entitled Britannia Pacif and painted by Sigismund Goetze, if the vision of a world where every nation was represented by women wasn’t enough to give Uncle Sam and his fellow national personifications some pause, the sidelining of the only men in the image as shirtless servants might have done it.
The timing involved in Uncle Sam’s rapid dumping of Miss Columbia, however, is a bit suspicious. After all, they’d survived their differences during the Gilded Age and that little misunderstanding known as the Spanish-American War.
What else was going on that might have influenced him?
While the nation’s attention remained focused on fighting the war until the Armistice ending it was signed in November of 1918, an internal conflict that had raging for long decades before would still go on, for almost two more years.
It was the fight to give all American women the right to vote and it had, at times, seemed to be more a battle of the sexes.
Invariably, the women who lobbied male Presidents, Senators, Congressmen and Governors were depicted as overbearing henpecking bluestockings with masculine features and manners.
Curiously, with all her fervor about equality and fairness, Miss Columbia remained almost entirely mute about women’s suffrage over the course of the several decades of fighting for it.
There was one notable exception, however.
That was the cartoon which showed Miss Columbia doing something she had never done before or since. Miss Columbia transformed herself into Uncle Sam himself.
Once women gained the vote, however, Columbia was not called upon again as a national conscience of duty or liberty by groups like the League of Women Voters who waged public service campaigns urging their sisters to inform themselves about the political process and to use their right to vote wisely.
She remained a popular character for women to costume themselves as in patriotic parades and pageants.
Miss Columbia was practically left out of World War II. That was entirely Uncle Sam’s. He didn’t want her and he didn’t need her. Some theorize that her place as a symbolic American woman was taken by the more modern Rosie the Riveter.
Every now and then, however, she could be coaxed to emerge from retirement to effect a sweet message that merged the interests of commerce and patriotism, like distributing Carnation canned milk to the starving people of post-war Europe.
By the 1940s and 1950s, it was not disgust or embarrassment which prevented Columbia from but the most remote of public appearances.
She was simply placed safely away in the attic of national memory, a sweet, aging lady in her red and blue shawls, stripped of her stripes and stars.
In 1931, after all its decades of volunteer service as the unofficial national anthem, Hail, Columbia was studiously ignored by the U.S. Congress which ended up choosing The Star Spangled Banner when it finally decided to declare an official national anthem.
Her name and image has not entirely vanished. Her daughterly incarnation as Miss Liberty has been standing for over a century in New York Harbor.
She also stands watch over the nation’s capital city, from atop the U.S. Capitol Building. Not until she was taken down for a cleaning in the 1990s did many people realize it was her and not a Native-American Indian, since her feathered headdress was the accessory which most identified her while viewed from afar.
Does the 21st century offer Columbia a chance for a comeback? Perhaps her old values can find a new audience.
In 2010, for example, she did return for Independence Day as an anime character.
Although her name was incorrectly spelled.
In recent months, Columbia also showed up in the developer Irrational Games’ video game BioShock Infinite, the mysteriously missing flying city which is the focus of the action is not only named for her but she appears as a massive angel statue in it.
And while Columbia may never again assume a central role in the identification of a nation known for its perpetual evolutionary change, she can actually always be found in a movie theater.
As long as you get into your theater seat right as the movie is starting – and the film happens to be made by a particular studio.
That’s right – it’s her.
- Uncle Sam: Born From Brothers, He Gets His Beard On (Part 2) (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Uncle Sam: Not the Man They Say He Is (Part 1) (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Ole Uncle Sam (muscleheaded.wordpress.com)
- The Gods of America (mythospherejourney.wordpress.com)
- Tell Uncle Sam What You Want For Independence Day! (txwclp.org)
- He Wants You! (mindbogglingfacts.wordpress.com)