The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Hail, Columbia!

What does the United States really look like? You can describe the physical landscape, the rivers, the mountains, the Grand Canyon. You can talk about its citizens, both famous and ordinary. But if you had to choose one person who embodied the whole nation…well, you might pick this guy:

WWW military recruitment poster. Credit: Library of Congress.

WWI military recruitment poster. Credit: Library of Congress.

Uncle Sam has been used as an allegorical symbol of the U.S. – or perhaps more accurately, the U.S. government – for about 200 years. But starting in the twentieth century, he started to usurp another figure, one who’d been with us since the very beginning: Columbia.

The figure of Columbia emerged during the Revolutionary War as an American equivalent to England’s Britannia, eventually becoming as easily recognizable to Americans as Uncle Sam is today. The first reference to Columbia as a human figure appeared in a poem by a woman named Phillis Wheatley. She wrote it for George Washington in 1775, and sent it to him as inspiration in the struggle for independence. Here’s an excerpt:




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 the veil of night!

The poem is remarkable for several reasons. First, George Washington liked it enough to personally invite her to his camp and thank her for the poem she had written in his honor. He even helped her get the poem into print. And then there’s the story of its author. Wheatley was a former slave, who had learned to read and write while living in Boston with her owners, the Wheatley family. Even her name was a mark of her bondage: the slave ship that had taken her to America as a child had been called “The Phillis”.

After Washington helped publish Wheatley’s poem, Columbia began to show up in songs and newspaper cartoons. She helped give meaning to a nation in its infancy, says our guest Ellen Berg:

A Civil War-era depiction of Columbia. Credit: Library of Congress.

A Civil War-era depiction of Columbia. Credit: Library of Congress.

“She is this wise creature, this wise being who can lead the country. And I think that’s really important early on, because there’s some sense of a supernatural force who is helping us know what to do, where this country should be going.”

As the young nation grew, though, Columbia’s significance began to be superseded by that of another national symbol:  Uncle Sam, who first appeared while America was fighting the War of 1812.

It wasn’t an exact replacement, since there were subtle differences in what the two symbols represented. Whereas Columbia was removed from politics and represented the nation itself, Uncle Sam came to represent the more aggressive, assertive representation of the federal state. For a time, it was even common for artists to depict the two of them together, though their relationship wasn’t entirely clear. Sometimes Sam was Columbia’s uncle, and sometimes the two were linked romantically, with the states – or, as in the case below, various ethnic groups – as their children.

A family party - the 200th birthday of the healthiest of Uncle Sam's adopted children. Puck Magazine. Credit: Library of Congress.

A family party – the 200th birthday of the healthiest of Uncle Sam’s adopted children. Puck Magazine. Credit: Library of Congress.

But as the federal government grew stronger, Uncle Sam’s power grew too, until, within a hundred years of his first appearance, his reputation came to eclipse even Columbia’s. Once ubiquitous, Columbia is rarely depicted today.

But she still lives on, even though we may not know her by name – most notably, says Berg, in the figure of the Statue of Liberty, standing proud in New York Harbor:

"Liberty enlightening the world." Credit: Library of Congress

“Liberty enlightening the world.” Credit: Library of Congress

“As our knowledge of Columbia has fallen, what remains is the statute who we know is the goddess of liberty. And the statue has become the stronger figure. So in a way, we can say that Columbia is still there, we’re just not really aware of it.”

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