Thursday, January 25, 2018

Hail Columbia


What is more representative of the American ‘soul’ than the love of liberty? After all, the desire to be free of British rule is the reason America exists. So it is not surprising that America’s quest for independence, required a symbol that would represent this love of freedom.

Although a mere eagle or a mythical phoenix would have done the basic job, the new Colonies realized that they needed a more inspiring symbol to do justice to this entirely new endeavor.

They turned to the practice that was en vogue in Europe at the time. Nations and even entire continents were represented by female figures. France had its Marianne, England had Britania and Germany had Germania. Why not depict America with an equally inspiring lady?

This practice dates back to the Romans, who revered certain values, known as Virtues. They had a slew of Goddesses to whom they attributed these virtues, which they in turn tried to live up to and put up as examples for the ‘domus’ (the common people). Some of those Virtues were Hope (Spes), Justice (Justicia), Piety (Pietas), Courage (Virtus) and especially Libertas, the Goddess of Freedom.

The Colonies were in great need of an image that would represent this virgin, unspoiled country. An image that would create a national identity different from the former mother country. They turned to the Roman Goddess Libertas for inspiration and it was Chief Justice Samuel Sewall of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who, in 1697 suggested that America’s Colonies be called Columbina, a feminization of Christopher Columbus. Thus Lady Columbia was borne.

Even before she appeared on the scene, the Colonies represented themselves by ‘the Indian Princess’, a half naked woman with feathers on her head. The old country (Britain and France) saw her as savage and inferior, but the people whom she represented took pride in her unspoiled and free spirit.

Lady Columbia became quite popular during the Revolutionary War, especially after African-American Poet Phillis Wheatley (a slave of all people), wrote a poem that implored General Washington to free the country from British oppression.

Throughout the 19th Century, Lady Columbia showed up in numerous publications. She had style. She was neither young nor old, rarely carried weapons other than a shield or a spear that functioned as a flag bearer. She was beautifully draped in a flowing white gown or, during wartime with the star spangled banner.

What is most appealing about her as a symbol, is that she represents moderation and justice. She often stood up for the destitute and especially immigrants who showed up on America’s shores.

Then a new figure I never knew existed shows up. He was known as ‘Brother Johnathan’, who was really Jonathan Trumbull, the only British governor who sided with the revolutionaries and who supplied George Washington’s troops with provisions during the American War for Independence .

Finally, during the War of 1812, good old Uncle Sam appeared on the scene. With his striped pants and Lincoln style top hat, he was not nearly as classy as Lady Columbia. In fact, he was modeled after Samuel Wilson, a meatpacker from Troy, New York who supplied rations for the soldiers. Wilson's packages were labeled "E.A – US.” The EA stood for Elbert Anderson, the contractor, but someone joked that the U.S. stood for Uncle Sam, referring to Wilson.

So you see, on the one hand, there was Lady Columbia, a Goddess and on the other, Uncle Sam, a meatpacker. She represented the American people and he represented the Government.

For a while Columbia and Sam had equal dibs on being represented in the world of cartoons and political satire. She was a favorite of Thomas Nast, one of the most prolific illustrators of the time. He employed the motherly, nurturing Columbia to embody the “motherland”, to remind audiences of America’s values and democratic promise. She was Uncle Sam’s conscience.

Here, Columbia argues for the Civil Rights of a wounded African American veteran.

At the height of her fame, she could be seen everywhere: as a figurehead on ships, on top of official buildings, on coins and in songs. She encouraged her ‘children’ to push forward across the land to the Pacific and became the seat of the future United States government: the District of Columbia.

Throughout her career, Columbia kept her heart pure and unlike Uncle Sam, she did not play the political game. She is the perfect symbol of restraint and rationality mixed with empathy and a sense of fairness. She completely disagreed with Uncle Sam on the issue of immigration and in one cartoon she is seen introducing a Chinese immigrant as one of her new children, showing her genuine egalitarianism.

But soon, Uncle Sam starts to overshadow the Goddess. What with all the wars that followed and America edging its way towards becoming a super power, you couldn't really have a female represent this country, could you?

World War 2 came and she slowly diminishes in stature, being portrayed as too naïve and idealistic. Matters of importance better be dealt with by the older, wiser Uncle Sam. She is delegated to encouraging her daughters to grow vegetables and her sons to be brave and enlist.

Her fate is pretty much sealed when her name and symbol are hijacked by Columbia pictures. But her name and image live on in her daughterly incarnation as Miss Liberty. She has been standing for over a century in New York Harbor.

Sadly, Columbia the Goddess has faded from America’s collective memory. Would the United States be a different place, had she maintained her status as the country's symbol? Would we have been a gentler, more egalitarian society? Hopefully the values that she stood for are still alive in our hearts and can be rekindled. Only time will tell… leave comment here