The Personification of America
Before Uncle Sam’s stern bearded visage was used on American war propaganda recruitment posters in World War II, and before he supplanted her in the national consciousness as a symbol of America, Columbia, a woman, was the symbolic representation of the United States of America. She was an idea, a thought, a feeling. She was the personification of America.
So what exactly is a personification? The following definition from Oxford dictionary defines a personification as:
“the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something nonhuman, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form.”
Mother Nature is a personification. Santa Claus is a personification. Yes, even the Easter Bunny is a personification. Get it?
Some personifications move people to make jokes, write poems or songs, or sing nursery rhymes, but other personifications can move people to revolution. They inspire men and women to sacrifice, to take up arms, to venture into the unknown and risk it all. For what? An idea. And bear in mind, dear readers, that the countries we live in and the governments we are governed by, are ideas.
Countries have always been lauded (and criticized) in song and verse by poets and musicians, but they have also been depicted and painted by great artists — painters and sculptors who were able to physically craft an image that they felt embodied the life and spirit of their country and its people. So what would be the first image or personification of what was then the newly “discovered” lands that would become America?
Early engravings of what was then called America, the personification of the New World, portrayed America as a half-naked Amazonian queen of a savage untamed land, usually seated and riding atop an armadillo or alligator — fantastic animals that many people in Europe would not have been familiar with. The background is peopled with masses of near naked indigenous natives — almost always shown as cannibals — in a virgin country (without fences, roads, or other man-made boundaries demarking private ownership) practically begging to be developed into farmsteads by European hands who thought of undeveloped land as a waste.
These engravings and paintings were essentially travel brochures that enticed people to sail to the New World. How else were the financial investors behind such enterprises as the Virginia Company or Plymouth Company going to get people to travel across the Atlantic Ocean, build a settlement, and hopefully survive their first Winter without starving to death or being massacred by the native tribes in the area? By promising, nay, showing them in visual form the land and wealth that could be theirs if they were brave and industrious enough.
Never mind that the voyage from England and parts of Europe to the New World could last upwards of two or three months, or that before the colonists had even stepped onto dry land many would die from dysentery, illness, or malnutrition.
To that end the engravings and paintings would always show a vast wilderness with an abundance of foreign plants, crops, and wild game. America was the land of plenty. There was plenty of wild game to hunt, plenty of land to farm, and plenty of timber to build towns and cities. Never mind the inconvenience that came when the settlers learned that there were already various peoples living in America who were not happy to see them land on their shores and bear witness to their growing settlements and colonies.
While the promise of religious freedom enticed some to her shores, the greater draw to American had more to do with outright capitalism. America has always been a place where people come to make their fortune. Remember, the New World was “discovered” because Europeans wanted cheaper shipping routes to India for its spices. Why? Because food can be pretty bland without pepper, cinnamon, basil, cumin, paprika etc. to flavor it. And sugar? Now that’s a real game changer.
Why find a route to India by going west? The problem that Europeans faced was that to the east the Ottoman Empire had control of the shipping routes to India — in effect controlling the spice trade — and the only people they did business with were the Italian city-states of Venice and Genoa.
Prominent businessmen and merchants in these city states could then charge almost whatever they wanted to their other European buyers eager to savor the flavors of spices they didn’t have access to in their own lands. Fortunes were made in the spice trade and it could be argued that the abundance of wealth and prosperity that some businessmen and nobles enjoyed in Italy was directly responsible for the Italian Renaissance.
By traveling west and attempting to find alternative shipping routes to India, the Spanish, Portuguese, and later the English were essentially trying to cut out the middle man from a global food and spice supply chain.
Europeans would find in the New World such staple crops as potatoes, tomatoes, corn, squash, tobacco etc. which were then grown, harvested, and when possible, shipped back to Europe at a profit. In the Americas there was land everywhere, almost free for the taking. Certainly there were those various indigenous tribes, but Europeans would often pay them and their borders little mind. After all, the prints and paintings that came back from the Americas showed near naked men and women, their bodies often sporting tattoos or piercings, and lacking those quintessential European arms: muskets, swords, and armor. The fanciful and often erroneous images depicting them as unclothed cannibals reinforced in European minds the “uncivilized” nature of America’s first inhabitants, making it morally easier to decimate their tribes and people.
But how did America became Columbia? How did the image of America as a rowdy brown-skinned queen, half-naked, riding on an alligator armed with an axe and bow, surrounded by an abundance of trees and fruit growing all around her, became that of Columbia? Why did the personification of America change to that of Columbia?
Perhaps it was because with time America was becoming less wild and more settled. The initial settlements had grown from tiny colonies, barely sustainable, to villages and then townships. Roads and waterways linked the colonies into a larger network, enabling men and women to send correspondence to one another and engage in wider commerce with greater ease and security.
By the 1770’s the early Indian wars, such as the Anglo-Powahatan Wars (1610–1646) the Pequot War (1636–1638) and others were largely a thing of the past. Most native tribes in the original 13 colonies had been exterminated; what few survivors remained merged into larger tribes that increasingly sought to escape the ever growing creep of European borders upon what had once been their ancestral lands and hunting grounds.
The Ohio Valley Region, with its abundance of timber and game, beckoned to those European souls (who now referred to themselves as Americans) that were willing to face the hardships and risks of crossing the mountains to go west and stake a claim. The same frontier spirit (and desire for wealth) that had driven men to cross an ocean was now pushing them on to trek across the Appalachians and onward to the mighty Mississippi River and beyond.
No, the figure of a savage Indian war queen would no longer do. America was becoming “civilized” — at least its east was. By the time of the American War for Independence, (more widely referred to as the Revolutionary War) Columbia had been born.
One of the earliest uses of the word Columbia comes from one of America’s first poets, in fact the first published female black poet in America, a former slave by the name of Phillis Wheatley, who lived from 1753 to 1784.
In 1775 during the height of the Revolutionary War she penned a poem titled, “His Excellency General Washington” that was published and later re-printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette. It reads:
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.
It is a wonderful piece of poetry, rife with allegory. In fact she even references a grieving and worried Brittania (the female personification of Great Britain) who “droops the pensive head, while round increase the rising hills of dead” from the war.
The last stanza of her poem is of special interest. She extols the “great chief” General Washington and counsels him that the fate of the nation is in his hands and that the Goddess should be his guide.
She is referring to Columbia, but more specifically she means America.
She doesn’t want General Washington to worry about his reputation, his estate (he was a wealthy man and slave owner who did not have to fight against the British), the lack of resources, inclement weather, poor logistics, or the problems of forging a rag tag band of militiamen into the Continental Army to dissuade him or cause him to loose faith in the cause. She wants the general to simply be true to Columbia and in return she would guide him to make the right decisions.
The men who would sign the United States Declaration of Independence and who would later go on to draft the Articles of Confederation (the first constitution of the colonies) were of a more sophisticated sort than those first settlers who carved up early America with musket and blade. They were learned men educated at Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Vienna, and Amsterdam. Men who could not only read English (only about 60% of people in the earliest days of the colonies could read) but Greek and Latin — the languages of Classical antiquity — as well as whatever other languages they had managed to acquire along the way.
Let the soldiers and frontiersmen go out into the deep dark forests, fight the natives, and settle the land. The intelligentsia were bringing culture: Literature. Art. Poetry. Music. And oh yes, those ideas previously mentioned.
This intellectual class were men who would have read Aristotle, Euclid, Virgil, Tacitus, and Livy. They would have been familiar with Pericles and Athenian democracy and looked to the lessons of ancient Greece and Rome for guidance — past civilizations of culture and splendor whose art, literature, and architecture had persisted through the centuries.
These men of letters were fully aware that they were crafting a new civilization, literally making up the government — along with the images and symbols of its power — as they went along. A half-naked indigenous woman was no longer an apt fit for the growing colonies and the nation state they were creating. America needed some clothes — and what better clothes to give her than those of a Roman noblewoman?
Since the founding fathers looked to the ancient Greeks and Romans for inspiration, they would be all too familiar with its customs of slavery.
Now slavery in the world of Classic Antiquity was a very different thing than the slavery practiced in the Americas. People weren’t slaves simply because of the color of their skin. They were slaves either because they were born into slavery, they became slaves because of financial debts, or they were prisoners of war, captured and later sold to the highest bidder. Ancient Rome would have a series of slave revolts where men fought for their freedom (known as the Servile Wars, the rebellion led by the gladiator Spartacus was but one episode in this bloody history) but slaves could also be freed by their owners. This was known as manumission.
The reasons why a slave would be manumitted or given his freedom in the ancient world, or even more recently during slavery times in the United States, were many and varied. A slave may be freed simply because they had grown too old and were no longer able to labor, or perhaps through service their owner had grown to regard them with some affection and realized that forced servitude was immoral and wrong.
Other slaves (those few that were actually paid a wage or were permitted to earn some money in their off time, however meager) were able with time to purchase their own freedom. While exceedingly rare this was not impossible. In the United States we have the story of the former slave Venture Smith, captured when he was just over six years old in West Africa and sold into slavery for four gallons of rum and a piece of calico. In 1765 he was able to purchase his freedom for the enormous sum of 71 pounds and and two shillings.
Still other slaves were sometimes freed upon the death of their owner who would leave instructions to that effect in their last will and testament. President George Washington, for instance, left detailed instructions in his will to have the slaves he owned freed, taught to read and write, and even cared for by his heirs as long as necessary.
In the time of Ancient Rome, when a slave was to be freed or manumitted by their owner, they were brought before the magistratus (magistrate) who, in a formal ceremony, would touch the slave upon the head with a wooden rod known as a festuca while their owner would hold them fast, demonstrating their ownership of the person. With the utterance of the words, “hunc hominem liberum volo” or “This person I want freed” the slave would become a free citizen. Their former owner would release their grip on them. Their head would be shaved and a soft felt cap, known as a pileus, would be given to him to wear, signifying to all that he was now a free citizen.
The pileus and festuca were both symbols of the Roman goddess of freedom, Libertas. They would go on to be symbols of Columbia and of the revolution itself.
By the time of the War of 1812, the symbol of Columbia as the personification of the United States of America was firmly entrenched.
Columbia would go on to lend her name to countless locations, songs, and objects. “Hail Columbia!” was a popular song that was at one time considered for the national anthem of the United States. It would be composed in 1789 and was, for over a century, the unofficial national anthem of the United States of America — until the “Star-Spangled Banner” was named as the official anthem in 1931. Today “Hail Columbia!” is the official ceremonial song played when the Vice President formally enters a room.
The Resident Act of 1790, officially known as: An Act for establishing the temporary and permanent seat of the Government of the United States, would call for and establish a capital in the young nation. It would be named after General Washington, America’s first president, and the people who lived there, formerly residents of Maryland and Virginia, would now live in the District of Columbia.
The first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe was named the Columbia Rediviva. In 1792 when the ship entered the mouth of a large unnamed river in the Pacific Northwest, her captain, John Gray, would name it after the ship — herself named after Columbia, the personification of America. The river would become known as the Columbia River.
Nearly 175 years later, two astronauts from the Apollo 11 space mission, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, would touch down on the surface of the moon on July 20th, 1969. After spending time on the moon exploring, collecting samples, and planting a flag of the United States, the two men would blast off from the lunar surface to rejoin the command module, piloted by Michael Collins, who had been monitoring the momentous event while in orbit around the moon.
The command module that carried those three brave souls on their return to to planet Earth would splash down into the waves of the Pacific Ocean where they would be retrieved by the United States Navy and congratulated by a proud nation and world had a name. It was Columbia.