Columbia Vanishing: Disappearance of the American Republic and the Emergence of the Modern State, Personified

[Note: If you are reading this article in your email, please observe that some email carriers do not include images in messages. This article is dependent upon the reader being able to see the images discussed. If your email did not include the relevant images, please read the article in the archive so you don’t miss the importance of the imagery. You can do so by going to]

Nations define themselves through symbols. The images and themes used may speak to explicit and intended statements of purpose, while others may say more than the surface level suggests. The United States of America used the female personification and symbol of Columbia from its revolution until after the first World War. During and after the Great War, the use of Columbia fell out of favor for several reasons. These include the rise in popularity of Uncle Sam—a symbol used time and again in the early twentieth century—and the use of the Statue of Liberty, which also grew in prominence as a symbol of the United States after the World Wars. Lady Liberty, however, is a static figure. While Columbia existed with kinetic energy, Lady Liberty stands still, silent and lifeless. It is worth questioning why the iconic and dynamic figure of Columbia faded from American thought. What caused Columbia’s vanishing?

The personification of the United States as a female figure of simultaneous grace and power, expansion and liberation, was one of the most recognizable avatars of the nation in its earliest years. North America had often been portrayed in image as an Indian Princess. This romanticizing of indigenous peoples as foreign, exotic, and otherworldly was commonplace among European powers. The Indian Princess was not so much a means of revering Native Americans by Europeans and settlers as it was to paint the American continent as mysterious, virginal, and akin to a natural paradise. “In the eighteenth century a young female Columbia—often presented by an Indian maiden—personified the virgin and abundant qualities of the New World.”[1] Over time, the Indian Princess was taken over by the American Greek Goddess, and then finally by the image of Columbia; a figure which contained the inherent virtue and purity of the Indian Princess as well as the power, historic wisdom, and distinction of the Greek Goddess. The Indian Princess became Columbia by way of American reverence for the Greco-Roman republics of the ancient world, which hung so prominently in the minds of the American Founders. Just as cities were named and designed with inspiration from Athens and Rome, Columbia was born out of the synthesis of the Greek Goddess and the Indian Princess. “[T]he Indian Princess evolved from a dependent daughter to a free sister of Britannia. As attributes she acquired the liberty cap, the rattlesnake, and the American flag.”[2]

Within only a couple years of American independence, Columbia was seen as both the representation of, and the guardian to, the American experiment. Her image not only became synonymous with the nation, but as recognizable during the early American republic as any other figure, fabled or factual. “A mythologized Washington, a Roman eagle, and a classically dressed maiden alternately called the Goddess of Liberty and Columbia, after her masculine namesake Columbus, emerged as the preeminent symbols of the early nation.”[1] She is depicted in a textile, The Apotheosis of Washington and Franklin (circa 1785). “Here she is seated in an elegant, golden chariot driven by Washington and drawn by leopards. Her chariot is preceded by two Indian youths blowing trumpets from which wave the American flag and a flag with the ‘Unite or Die’ rattlesnake, and it is followed by soldiers in triumphant procession bearing the American and French flags.”[2] She is thought of here as a remnant of the Greek Goddess, but the post-Independence Americana depicted in the image, including the use of the stars and stripes, is evidence that it is here that Columbia emerges. Even before the creation of the new nation under the U.S. Constitution of 1787, Columbia is seen as an instrument of cohesion and unity for the individual states just after the Revolutionary War; a time when independence brought much chaos and fear concerning the young nation’s future. The vague notions of what Columbia represented at this time was emblematic of the uncertainty of what the nation was to become. Just like the country, Columbia represented unity and independence, but in this era little else explicitly. “Columbia did not convey any one dominant moral quality, though she was associated variously with peace, justice, plenty, wisdom, the arts, and the sciences.”[1] This version of Columbia—emblem of American independence and unity, would largely prevail in the American consciousness until the Civil War.

The use of Columbia and her meaning would change dramatically under the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1860s. Nast is one of the most iconic and influential political cartoonists in the history of the United States, and his use of Columbia is among the reasons why that legacy persists. Nast turned Columbia from a spiritual symbol of unity to one of adversity and moral authority. Nast’s Columbia became the honest judge of political corruption as well as a symbol of liberator, protector, and advocate of former slaves. Nast’s cartoon, “And Not This Man?”[3] shows Columbia presenting a freed slave and veteran of the Union Army, one leg missing from war, asking why he has not been given the franchise of equal citizenship and protection under the law. Under the brilliant work of Thomas Nast, Columbia became the embodiment of the best aspects and highest ideals of the nation, or as author Lois W. Banner stated, Thomas Nast’s Columbia was a “symbol of reform in the midst of corruption.”[1]

Columbia would soon enough undergo yet another transformation, only a handful of years after Thomas Nast brought the most idealized version of her to print. The Columbia that appeared in 1872, in the work of John Gast and his painting American Progress, was an altogether different being. This Columbia is the champion of American expansionism and continental imperialism; manifest destiny.

The painting portrays Columbia flying through the air, high above, stringing a line of telegraph wire behind her—representing both American westward expansion and technological progress. Down below one can see the white pioneers advancing westward while buffalo and Native Americans are driven into darkness somewhere beyond the frontier. Gast’s painting more aptly, honestly, and crudely states the aims of the United States than almost any other relic of its time. It is nakedly hegemonic and celebratory of the cause. Less than a decade after the emancipation of slaves, American Progress celebrates the continental dominance of Euro-Americans and the eradication of America’s indigenous nations. Columbia, a figure which had previously been utilized to represent American unity, followed by the freeing of slaves and the endowment of their rights, here revels in acquisition by force and rejoices in attempts of genocide. Once the image of the highest ideals of the United States, American Progress casts Columbia as Empress Supreme. This version of Columbia would persist in varied forms for years to come. She would, at her worst—which is to say at the nation’s worst—be an instrument of rationalized dominance and celebrated imperial ambition.

The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century saw a renaissance in the popularity of celebrating the female form. Columbia, as the personification of the U.S. and its numerous desires, fit easily into this milieu. “A colossal figure of Columbia atop the art building towered over the Philadelphia 1876 Centennial; in the central hall of the main building the nation was personified by an amazon holding a spear and a sword—‘the aboriginal earth goddess’ incarnate, according to one reviewer. The Chicago Columbian Centennial of 1893, the American World’s Fair of the century, was dominated by statues of classical female goddesses.”[1] It was in this era, until the time of the first World War, that Columbia would be used more than ever before. It is interesting to consider how prominent her image was and how, considering its popularity and pervasiveness, it would fade so quickly by the 1920s.

Just as the popularity of Columbia was at its zenith in the late nineteenth century, the United States found itself with imperial ambitions to sate its hunger for international influence and power. Whereas Columbia had represented westward expansion and all its inborn characteristics, she would now come to represent the United States on the world stage. The Spanish-American War brought the U.S.’s imperial ambitions to the forefront and Columbia helped to symbolize the precarious place the country stood. How does a country which was founded on anti-colonial principles of self-determination and aversion to foreign entanglements become the very thing it was instituted against? “Is Columbia to act as hostess for the hemisphere or to remain an isolationist?”[2]

This line walked by Columbia from the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth parallels American influence in the world, its increased ambition for such influence, and the birth of the modern state. By the early twentieth century, the question of whether the U.S. should play a major role in world affairs was a common debate. As the nation continued to grow in influence, the image of Columbia grew more cartoonish; garish. By this time, she is often clad in stars and stripes from head to toe. She has taken on a sister/motherly quality, looks glamorous—like a member of the American elite—and is now often seen with someone: Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam was not new in the twentieth century. His image went as far back as the War of 1812, but it is in the early twentieth century—and the Great War in particular—that he comes to dominate as the image of the United States. The image of the overtly masculine Uncle Sam became a convenient avatar for the federal government, which was growing immensely in power. If Columbia, in her best incarnations, was a figure of possibility and freedom, Uncle Sam was a symbol of the incredible power of the modern state. He was not nurturing, nor was he an advocate for the disenfranchised. He was a conceptual mouthpiece for statist power. “Perhaps Americans found that their Uncle Sam, like all good uncles, helped them out: by turning the vast machinery of war mobilization into a family relation, he gave political power a personal face and made sense of the government’s presence in everyday life.”[3] Uncle Sam normalized the pervasive power of the modern state, as well as its expectation that citizens served the state—rather than the reverse. By the time the United States had gotten involved in World War I and the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of military conscription (Arver v. United States, 1918) as well as the suppression of dissent (Schenk v. United States, 1919), Uncle Sam’s role as iron-fisted patriarch fit the aims of the U.S. government quite conveniently. Additionally, there was a rejection of individualism and an embracing of collectivism in the culture by the Progressive Era, which Uncle Sam was similarly suited to. “Most Progressive Era theorizations of loyalty… emphasized group attachments and looked skeptically at individualism.”[4]

This is not to say, however, that Columbia had entirely disappeared. She was, however, sharing the spotlight more often with Uncle Sam. The two were often featured together in the early twentieth century, especially during the Great War. Their relationship is vague. There is a vague sister/wife dynamic, depending on the artist and cartoon. The nature of their relationship is as confusing as their mutual representation. They are supposedly meant to represent the same thing: the United States and its ideals, yet they almost seem a contradiction when occupying the same space. Nevertheless, they were often utilized together in images during World War I, including in cartoons which sought to compare the Great War with the American Civil War.

There is a variety of reasons as to why people would want to associate the first World War with the American Civil War, but one is the calling for unity. The Civil War was, after all, a war for the preservation of the Union. It was a bloody affair—the bloodiest in American history—but its outcome was the freeing of a people and the reunification of the nation. These themes were very useful to those who wished to evoke a sense of patriotism and devotion to country. For example, two cartoons from the Tulsa Daily World and The Stars and Stripes both employed these comparisons in decidedly unsubtle ways. The illustration from the Tulsa Daily World shows Uncle Sam kneeling, apparently in mourning. Standing next to him is Columbia. Her hands are clasped and she is looking upward, perhaps in prayer. Sandwiching this middle image of Uncle Sam and Columbia is an image of a soldier to the left and another to the right. The left image is of a soldier in the current Great War. He is deep in a trench, lined with barbed wire. Over the image is written, “’18,” referencing the current year of warfare. The image to the right is of a soldier from another time; a soldier clearly from the era of the Civil War. To further drive the point home and associate with the soldier on the left, this image includes “’61” prominently—referencing 1861, the first year of the war between the states. Above these images reads, “Already Sacred to the Heroes of ’61, Memorial Day Today in Tulsa Takes On An Added Significance—President’s Proclamation.” Underneath is what appears to be a reprint of President Wilson’s Memorial Day Proclamation from May 11, 1918. Under the image is the poem “Columbia, We Have Answered” by Clarence B. Douglas.[5]

The cartoon from The Stars and Stripes once again has both Columbia and Uncle Sam featured. They both are holding a wreath—a common symbol for peace and mourning. The ghost of Abraham Lincoln looms large behind Uncle Sam and Columbia. Underneath the image, the Gettysburg Address is printed. Once again, an analogy is made to the Civil War, duty to country, and sacrifice.[6]

There is another connection one can draw between the Civil War and the Great War: the relationship between the citizen and the state. Military conscription was not introduced into the United States until the Civil War. Reaction to it varied from quiet support to violent rioting. The federal government exerted more power against its own citizens during the Lincoln administration than ever before. Draft riots were suppressed, protesters were silenced, antiwar advocates and members of the press were thrown into prison, and habeas corpus was suspended. Some of these actions by the state were used as precedent when unity and devotion to government power was needed to enter World War I. Woodrow Wilson likewise enacted a military draft—the first national draft in the nation’s history. Certainly, it can be argued that in Lincoln’s case, he was dealing with insurrection and certain inherent powers of the commander in chief needed to be flexed. Such an argument for Wilson is more problematic. Wilson was arguably making slaves, not setting them free. “Whereas President Lincoln had used state machinery to turn the Civil War into a battle for emancipation, the nation-state under President Wilson expanded its antiliberal powers while fighting a war that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy.”[1]

Columbia fit awkwardly in this role as advocate for the modern state, even if she was often used on awards for valor and bravery for those who served in the Great War.[1] For all the misuse of her image to rationalize manifest destiny and American imperialism, it was something else altogether for Columbia to be an advocate for the limitation of the rights of American citizens. While this was a role perfectly fitting of Uncle Sam, Columbia simply was not suitable for the growth of modern government and its interest in turning citizens into subjects. Historian Peter Onuf has described the comparison between Columbia and Uncle Sam, and the separate roles they have played in American history. “You might say that Columbia is the figure that embodies, almost literally, the nation—whereas Uncle Sam is the more aggressive, assertive representation of the state, and the balance between those two things of course have shifted over time.”[1]

After the first World War, Columbia began to fade away. This is for numerous reasons, including that she no longer fit the national psychology of the way the nation, or rather the U.S. government, wanted to see itself. Other reasons should be noted as well, however. The dedication of the Statue of Liberty in the 1880s, which was ostensibly a Columbian figure, overtook the image of Columbia much the same way as Uncle Sam had, though with traits similar to Columbia rather than for adverse qualities. The disappearance of Columbia can also, in part, be due to the practical result of the woman’s suffrage movement and the resulting ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Once women became a practical constituency at the national level, the long-practiced exercise of romanticizing the female and treating her as “the other” probably no longer made much practical or respectable sense. Lady Liberty aside, references such as Columbia arguably became an echo of a different era, when women had been treated paternalistically and practically as a separate species.

There is one more part of the Columbia story to be discussed. To do so, we must end with the beginning; the beginning of the story of Columbia as we know her. In 1775, a young slave in New England wrote a poem. She wrote it for the new General of the Continental Army, George Washington. Her name was Phillis Wheatley. Her first name derived from the slave ship she came to Boston on from West Africa at the age of seven, “The Phillis.” Wheatley was the surname of the family who purchased her. Unlike most slave-owners, John and Susanna Wheatley “allowed their eighteen-year-old daughter Mary to begin tutoring the young Phillis in Greek, Latin, poetry, and other subjects.”[1] Phillis grew to be an extraordinary writer and poet, publishing a book of poetry and traveling to London in 1773. When she wrote the poem for George Washington, she had it sent to the new Commander in Chief. “The poem illustrates Wheatley's somewhat surprisingly passionate patriotic sentiment, which factors strongly in much of her poetry. It ends with a stanza reading: ‘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.’”[2]

Washington was moved by the poem. Phillis Wheatley had assembled “the figure of Columbia in her poem ‘To His Excellency George Washington’ in such a way as to create a personification of America which combined both her own and the general's leading ideal traits.”[1] Remarkably, the General of the Continental Army “extended an invitation for Wheatley to call on him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In March of 1776, Washington courteously received Wheatley's visit.”[2] The meeting lasted approximately half an hour.

It is incredible that an educated slave wrote an admiring poem to the General of the Continental Army, himself an owner of slaves, and in so doing invented the personification of Columbia. While the term had long been used to identify the United States, and the Americas generally prior to that, it was Phillis Wheatley who created the incarnation of Columbia with her brilliant poem. “The figure Columbia… serves as an adept unification of two historical figures, George Washington and Phillis Wheatley the ‘father of his country’ and the mother of black American literature.”[1]

Indeed, this is the United States. Not the over-arching state which compels service, but a nation which finds its greatest stories in its greatest and truest histories. A nation that, somehow, can bring a slave-holding military man from Virginia and a poet slave from New England together for a meeting of mutual admiration and love of country. It is an incredible example and perhaps the most important reason to keep the image of Columbia alive for generations to come.


Primary Sources:

“Already Sacred To The Heroes.” Tulsa Daily World. May 30, 1918, 7.

Blashfield, Edwin Howland. “Columbia gives to her sons the accolade of the new chivalry of humanity Anna Cecelia [i.e., Cecilia] Foldese [i.e., Foldesi], Army Nurse Corps served the honor in the World War and died in the service of her country.” Certificate. 1919.

Gast, John. American Progress. 1872. Oil on canvass.

Green, Valentine. The Apotheosis of Washington and Franklin. Textile print/furnishing fabric. 1785. Art Institute Chicago.

“In France—Memorial Day, 1918.” The Stars and Stripes. May 24, 1918, 1.

Nast, Thomas. “And Not This Man?” Harper’s Weekly, August 5, 1865, 489.

Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: A. Bell, 1773.

Secondary Sources:

Banner, Lois W. American Beauty. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

Banta, Martha. Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Capozzola, Christopher. Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Fleming, E. McClung. “From Indian Princess to Greek Goddess the American Image, 1783-1815.” Winterthur Portfolio 3, no. 1 (1967): 37-66.

Meehan, Adam. “Phillis Wheatley.” Digital Encyclopedia.

O’Leary, Cecilia Elizabeth. To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Steele, Thomas J. “The Figure of Columbia: Phillis Wheatley plus George Washington.” The New England Quarterly 54, no. 2 (1981): 264-266.


[1] Thomas J.Steele, “The Figure of Columbia: Phillis Wheatley plus George Washington” The New England Quarterly 54, No. 2 (Jun., 1981): 266,

[1] Steele, Thomas J. Steele, “The Figure of Columbia: Phillis Wheatley plus George Washington” The New England Quarterly 54, No. 2 (Jun., 1981): 264, [2] Adam Meehan, “Phillis Wheatley,” Digital Encyclopedia,

[1] Adam Meehan, “Phillis Wheatley,” Digital Encyclopedia,  

[1] Peter Onuf, “Hail, Columbia!: The History of Our Forgotten National Goddess” Backstory Podcast, October 16, 2014,

[1] Edwin Howland Blashfield, “Columbia gives to her sons the accolade of the new chivalry of humanity Anna Cecelia [i.e., Cecilia] Foldese [i.e., Foldesi], Army Nurse Corps served the honor in the World War and died in the service of her country.” Certificate. 1919.

[1] Cecilia Elizabeth O’Leary, To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 221-222.

[1] Lois W. Banner, American Beauty (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 167. [2] Martha Banta, Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 555. [3] Christopher Capozzola, Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 4. [4] Capozzola, Uncle Sam Wants You, 175. [5] “Already Sacred To The Heroes,” Tulsa Daily World, May 30, 1918, 7. [6] “In France—Memorial Day, 1918,” The Stars and Stripes, May 24, 1918, 1.

[1] Lois W. Banner, American Beauty (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 155.

[1] Thomas Nast, “And Not This Man?” Harper’s Weekly, August 5, 1865, 489.

[1] Fleming, “From Indian Princess to Greek Goddess: the American Image, 1783-1815,” 66.

[1] Cecilia Elizabeth O’Leary, To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 16. [2] Fleming, “From Indian Princess to Greek Goddess: the American Image, 1783-1815,” 47.

[1] Lois W. Banner, American Beauty, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 167. [2] E. McClung Fleming, “From Indian Princess to Greek Goddess:  the American Image, 1783-1815,” Winterthur Portfolio 3, no. 1 (1967): 38,