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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

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Activities: Context Activities

Miss America: The Image of Columbia

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The End of the Rebellion in the United States, 1865

[5565] Kimmel and Foster, The End of the Rebellion in the United States, 1865 (1866), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-12764].
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In 1775, the African American poet Phillis Wheatley opened the poem she addressed to George Washington with the lines "Celestial choir! enthroned in realms of light, / Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write." She goes on to describe the goddess Columbia as "divinely fair," with olive and laurel branches in her "golden hair." With these lines, Wheatley became the first writer to personify the new nation as the goddess "Columbia"--a feminized reference to Columbus, who was widely recognized as the "father" of America. Wheatley's use of the Columbia image is interesting both for its insistence on the goddess's Caucasian looks and for the profound influence it had on American culture. By the end of the Revolution, the figure of Columbia was everywhere. Popular songs and poems celebrated her; towns and cities were named for her (most notably the new seat of the federal government, the District of Columbia); and King's College in New York was renamed Columbia University. The adjective "Columbian" came to function as a kind of shorthand for patriotic allegiance to national ideals.

Although the image of Columbia was new when Wheatley developed it in 1775, iconographic representations of America as a woman had existed since the sixteenth century. The name "America," after all, is a feminization of explorer Amerigo Vespucci's Christian name. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century drawings almost always repre-sented the New World as a woman, and usually as a Native American. Pictured half-clothed in primitive garb, America in these representations is sometimes a savage cannibal woman and sometimes a regal Indian queen offering to share her natural bounty. British political cartoons produced during the Revolutionary War continued to portray America as a Native American woman, often picturing her as a rebellious Indian princess at war with her European mother, Britain.

As they fought to assert their independence, Americans apparently began to desire a new allegorical image to represent their nation. Scholar John Higham has suggested that Native American imagery may have become problematic because "white Americans were too close to real Indians in the eighteenth century to feel comfortable about identifying with any such personifications, no matter how idealized." In any case, Wheatley's Caucasian Roman goddess struck a chord. Her association with classical antiquity and the values of the Roman republic must have made her appealing to a nation that liked to conceive of itself as "a new Rome." Columbia was usually represented dressed in a white, toga-like gown, wearing a helmet, and carrying a liberty cap on a pole. She was often accompanied by the flag, the eagle, and documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. She appeared in paintings, statuary, and even on most of the coins produced by the United States Mint through the nineteenth century. Fearful that profiles of presidents or leaders would smack of imperialism and aristocracy, the young nation instead featured Columbia's profile on its money, accompanied by the word "Liberty."

Ironically, this celebration of the female figure as emblematic of American virtue and national character did not result in political gains for actual American women. Afforded only a symbolic and decorative position, they could not vote and were not considered citizens. In fact, the veneration of the feminized figure of Columbia in some ways displaces and obscures the important contributions that real women made to American society. The creation of the image of Columbia was probably not what Abigail Adams had in mind when she enjoined her husband, future president John Adams, to "remember the ladies."

  1. Comprehension: Examine the representations of America as female featured in the archive. How did the depiction of America change over time? How is the Columbia in the eighteenth-century print by Edward Savage different from the Columbia featured on the World War I recruitment poster?

  2. Context: How might the ideal of Columbia have influenced the depiction of female characters in eighteenth-century American texts? Consider Royall Tyler's The Contrast or Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple, for example.

  3. Exploration: The U.S. Mint recently released a dollar coin emblazoned with an image of Sacajawea, the Native American woman who assisted the Lewis and Clark party on their journey to the Pacific. Purchase one of these coins at your local bank. How is Sacajawea portrayed on the coin? How does the representation of her compare to earlier representations of America as an Indian woman? How does she compare to images of Columbia? Why do you think the Mint decided to feature Sacajawea on this new coin? Your reason need not be the same as the Mint's "official" reason.

[3215] John Gast, American Progress (1872),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-668].
Manifest Destiny is personified in the figure of America, who here leads a wave of civilization (settlers, railroads, and technol-ogy) across the continent. Symbols of the wilderness (Indians and animals) flee before her "progressive" influence.

[5565] Kimmel and Foster, The End of the Rebellion in the United States, 1865 (1866),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-12764].
The figure of Columbia, shown here in the turmoil of disunion surrounding the Civil War, was a prominent symbol of the classical republican virtues that framers of the new nation wished to emulate.

[6551] Kenyon Cox, Columbia & Cuba-Magazine Cover-Nude Study (1898),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-68463].
Cover of an 1898 magazine, exemplifying the openness toward the human body of the late-nineteenth-century realists. The names of the women, "Columbia" and "Cuba," refer to an imagined relationship between the nations during the Spanish-American War.

[6552] Washington Peale, Three Days of May 1844, Columbia Mourns Her Citizens Slain (1844),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-46533].
This painting serves as a memorial to casualties of the "Bible Riots" that took place in May 1844 between Protestants and Irish Catholics in Kensington, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. The figure of Columbia places a wreath on a broken column and holds an American flag.

[6555] Thomas Nast, A Belle Savage [Columbia Receiving Congratulations from All Parts of the World] (1876),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-105127].
This engraving dates from the nation's first centennial and shows Columbia holding congratulatory papers from such foreign leaders as William Von Bismarck and Alexander II.

[6556] Vincent Aderente, Columbia Calls (1916),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-8315].
Propaganda poster calling for Americans to enlist to fight in World War I. The war encouraged disillusionment with, and distrust of, modernization and technology in both European and American writers.

[6908] Edward Savage, Liberty [in the form of the Goddess of Youth; Giving Support to the Bald Eagle] (1796),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-15369].
This engraving shows Liberty, in the form of the goddess Hebe, making an offering to an eagle while she tramples on chains, a scepter, and other symbols of tyranny. At lower right is the city of Boston.

[9048] Deacon George Thomas, Figurehead of "America" (2002),
courtesy of Claire Dennerlein and Paul Manson.
Plaque on side of statue reads: "This figurehead is from the clipper ship "America' built in 1874 at Quincy, Massachusetts, by Deacon George Thomas. In 1887 she was put on the Pacific coasting trade and was wrecked on San Juan Island in 1914." Seattle businessman and former mayor Robert Moran erected the figurehead at his resort in 1916 to commemorate the dying era of great ship building in America.

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