Hail, Columbia!

Peter talks with historian Ellen Berg about a very different way in which “Columbus” was remembered – through the symbolic figure of “Columbia,” prominent throughout the 19th Century. Read more here.

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BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking today about Christopher Columbus and how his name has resonated throughout American history.

ED: We’re going to turn the clock back now to one of the first examples of Columbus’s name being invoked. In the 16th and 17th centuries, as people on both sides of the Atlantic debated what to call this new world, a variation on the explorer’s name often cropped up. Columbia. And though a different explorer– Amerigo Vespucci– ultimately got naming rights, the name Columbia did live on in a different guise.

PETER: During the Revolutionary War, a symbolic figure with that name emerged, eventually becoming as recognizable as Mickey Mouse is today. Part of the idea was to create a counter to England’s muse, Britannia.

ELLEN BERG: The first person who really made a very clearly human Columbia was Phillis Wheatley, who was a well known poet at the time of the Revolution.

PETER: This is historian Ellen Berg.

ELLEN BERG: And what was really striking about her is that she was a former slave. She’d come to America as a child and was enslaved. She was named after the slave ship she was brought on in 1761, The Phillis. And she lived with the Wheatleys in Boston originally, and was taught English by them, was taught to read and write, and became quite a well known poet in her time.

Where she really invents Columbia is in 1775. She writes a poem to George Washington, who was then the commander in chief of the Continental Army. And at that time, the two armies were at an impasse. And in a way, Phillis Wheatley is calling upon George Washington to action, and calling him to greatness. And she uses this goddess figure of Colombia for the first time that we really know of as a way of imploring him to lead the people on and create a great country.

PHILLIS WHEATLEY: To his excellency George Washington. Celestial choir enthroned 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–

ELLEN BERG: She sent the poem to him. And in fact a few months later– it took him a little while– but he wrote back to her and asked her to come visit him at his station so that he could thank her for this beautiful poem that she wrote.

PETER: Right, right.

ELLEN BERG: He then helped to get her poem into print.

PHILLIS WHEATLEY: Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side. Thy every action let the goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine. With gold unfading, Washington! Be thine.

PETER: 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.

ELLEN BERG: In the early decades of Columbia, she is considered the genius of the place. Which is an old concept.

PETER: Yeah.

ELLEN BERG: But basically, she is the guiding force. 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.

So in the first few decades of use of Columbia, she is a bit removed from politics. She’s kind of off in a cave somewhere or up in the clouds in some beautiful place. And poets and some artists then use her to express their feelings about how the country’s going.

PETER: And the country looked to her throughout most of the 19th century. She was depicted weeping on Washington’s coffin. Presidential candidates were seen wooing her in the popular press. But soon, there was a new kid on the block.

ELLEN BERG: Ultimately, Uncle Sam really does supersede Columbia, but it takes quite a while for him to do that. He’s first identified as a symbol during the War of 1812. And I’d say it wasn’t for another 100 years or so that Uncle Sam really took her place or became more well known as a symbol. She’s use quite heavily alongside Uncle Sam during the Spanish-American War.

PETER: Are they depicted together sometimes?

ELLEN BERG: They are often–

PETER: Uncle Sam and Columbia?


PETER: What an odd conjunction. It’s hard for me to imagine this classical woman in her flowing robes and this guy from Troy, New York with a beard.

ELLEN BERG: Yeah well, she’d had classical robes, but also a number of artists depicted her in more contemporary clothing. Depends on the time and the place.

But Uncle Sam and Columbia have an interesting relationship. It’s not always clear how they’re related to each other. Is he her uncle? That’s often one way he’s expressed. Sometimes it seems more of a domestic partnership or–

PETER: Ooh. There’s an erotic dimension to this then, you’re suggesting.

ELLEN BERG: Yeah, sometimes they are an old married couple with their children, the many states. So it’s a flexible relationship–


ELLEN BERG: That people can use as they see fit.

PETER: By the 20th century, with the federal government looming large, Columbia was on her way out. It was Uncle Sam’s turn to shine.

ELLEN BERG: Over time, Uncle Sam becomes more powerful with the rise of the federal government as a stronger and stronger power.

PETER: 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.


PETER: And the balance between those two things, of course, has shifted over time. For the most part, Columbia has vanished from our memory. But Berg says she was so present through so much of our history that you can never erase her completely.

ELLEN BERG: Some people would argue that Columbia is right there in New York Harbor. The Statue of Liberty originally would have been considered as the Statue of Columbia for many, many Americans. And they referred to the statue in that way.

And I think it’s just over time, 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.

PETER: Ellen Berg is working on a book tracing the history of the goddess Columbia.