Columbia: Goddess of America

It seems few Americans are aware of Columbia (feminized version of Columbus) who is the goddess of liberty and the personification of America.

As a quasi-mythical figure, Columbia first appears in the poetry of Phillis Wheatley starting in 1776 during the revolutionary war [ . . . ]

This detail is very interesting. Phillis Wheatley was a famous poet who was also a slave. Without enjoying freedom herself, she directed this poem to General Washington. This demonstrates right from the beginning how far short our country was from its own ideals.

Especially in the 19th century, Columbia would be visualized as a goddess-like female national personification of the United States, comparable to the British Britannia, the Italian Italia Turrita and the French Marianne, often seen in political cartoons of the 19th-early 20th century. This personification was sometimes called “Lady Columbia” or “Miss Columbia”.

The image of the personified Columbia was never fixed, but she was most often presented as a woman between youth and middle age, wearing classically draped garments decorated with the stars and stripes; a popular version gave her a red-and-white striped dress and a blue blouse, shawl, or sash spangled with white stars. Her headdress varied; sometimes it included feathers reminiscent of a Native American headdress, sometimes it was a laurel wreath, but most often it was a cap of liberty.

These are the types of historical facts that every American child should have learned in school, but I don’t recall learning about it until I heard Thom Hartmann discuss the topic.

(See his full discussion at Fora.tv)

So, America founded as a Christian nation, eh?

To His Excellency, General Washington
By Phillis Wheatley

Formerly behind the Speaker in the House of Representatives

Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and veil of night!

The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel bind her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.

File:Ladyliberty mackinacisland.jpg

One of the 200 Lady Liberty statues donated by the Boy Scouts of America is located on Michigan’s Mackinac Island in historic Haldimand Bay

Muse! bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,
Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honours,—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!

One century scarce perform’d its destined round,

When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.

“Hail, Columbia” was the unofficial national anthem up until 1931:

File:StatuePacificCemetery.pngHail Columbia, happy land!
Hail, ye heroes, heav’n-born band,
Who fought and bled in freedom’s cause,
Who fought and bled in freedom’s cause,
And when the storm of war was gone
Enjoy’d the peace your valor won.
Let independence be our boast,
Ever mindful what it cost;
Ever grateful for the prize,
Let its altar reach the skies.

Chorus

Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.

Immortal patriots, rise once more,
Defend your rights, defend your shore!
Let no rude foe, with impious hand,
Let no rude foe, with impious hand,
Invade the shrine where sacred lies
Of toil and blood, the well-earned prize,
While off’ring peace, sincere and just,
In Heaven’s we place a manly trust,
That truth and justice will prevail,
And every scheme of bondage fail.

ChorusFile:American progress.JPG

Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.

Behold the chief who now commands,
Once more to serve his country stands.
The rock on which the storm will break,
The rock on which the storm will break,
But armed in virtue, firm, and true,
His hopes are fixed on Heav’n and you.
When hope was sinking in dismay,
When glooms obscured Columbia’s day,
His steady mind, from changes free,
Resolved on death or liberty.

Personification of Columbia, from a Columbia R...

Image via Wikipedia

Chorus

Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.

Sound, sound the trump of fame,
Let Washington’s great fame
Ring through the world with loud applause,
Ring through the world with loud applause,
Let ev’ry clime to freedom dear,
Listen with a joyful ear,
With equal skill, with God-like pow’r
He governs in the fearful hour
Of horrid war, or guides with ease
The happier time of honest peace.

Chorus

Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.


The following is the Statue of Freedom which crowns the US capitol:

Capitol dome lantern Washington.jpg

Here is Statue of the Republic which was built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago:

File:Court of Honor and Grand Basin.jpg

Another related figure, of course, is the Statue of Liberty.

File:Statue of Liberty 7.jpg

In the Wikipedia article about the Statue of Liberty, there is a discussion of some of the background to the imagery:

Detail from a fresco by Constantino Brumidi in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., showing two early symbols of America: Columbia (left) and the Indian princess

Bartholdi and Laboulaye considered how best to express the idea of American liberty.[15] In early American history, two female figures were frequently used as cultural symbols of the nation.[16] One, Columbia, was seen as an embodiment of the United States in the manner that Britannia was identified with the United Kingdom and Marianne came to represent France. Columbia had supplanted the earlier figure of anIndian princess, which had come to be regarded as uncivilized and derogatory toward Americans.[16] The other significant female icon in American culture was a representation of Liberty, derived from Libertas, the goddess of freedom widely worshipped in ancient Rome, especially among emancipated slaves. A Liberty figure adorned mostAmerican coins of the time,[15] and representations of Liberty appeared in popular and civic art, including Thomas Crawford‘s Statue of Freedom (1863) atop the dome of the United States Capitol Building.[15] The figure of Liberty was also depicted on the Great Seal of France.[15]

On a plaque mounted inside the Statue of Liberty, there is the sonnet “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus:

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!”

Emma Lazarus, 1883

(Also, listen to this NPR interview about Emma Lazarus.)

At the beginning of the Civil War, Columbia was portrayed as the Spirit of ’61 (picture from Cool Chicks from History):

Here are some related articles:

Libertas

Liberty (goddess)

Goddess of Democracy