When America Was a Lady

Most appropriately for a nation founded on philosophical aspirations, an early name for the United States came out of a witty flaunting of British authority.

Columbia lends its name to everything from the U.S. Capitol – the District of Columbia – to the oldest college in New York and many counties and towns across the nation. Have you ever wondered why?

Columbia teaching John Bull [Great Britain] his new lesson c. War of 1812
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

In the early 18th century, the publication of parliamentary debates was illegal throughout the British Empire. But the demand for such reports – especially in the colonies – was such that inventive journalists determined to find a way to publish the accounts of such debates. In order to skirt the law, the pioneering London periodical, The Gentleman’s Magazine, published the “fictional” Reports of the Debates of the Senate of Lilliput, drawing place names from Jonathan Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Travels published in 1726 and wildly popular. Real people and places were otherwise indicated by using anagrams or substituting a classically styled pseudonym. Spain became Iberia, Britannia was England and America became Columbia by switching Christopher Columbus for Amerigo Vespucci and adding on the Latin suffix –ia to denote a place. Notably, none other than famed lexicographer Samuel Johnson, a writer for The Gentleman’s Magazine, is reputed to have coined the term Columbia. 

The three days of May 1844. Columbia mourns her citizens slain
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

By the time of the American Revolution, the founding fathers and the people they represented would have been familiar with the term Columbia but some of its satirical connotations would have fallen away. The authors of American democracy were also heavily influenced by classical ideals, bringing into existence a classical revival in the Americas reflected in the founding documents as well as art and architecture. What is often lost to history is the fact that the use of the word Columbia also embraced the neoclassical philosophy by allowing the fledgling democracy to call itself by a Latinized name. 

  Columbia welcomes the victims of German persecution to "the asylum of the oppressed," 1881
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Concurrent with the rise in its use, Columbia gained an allegorical representation as a woman, much in the same way that French revolutionaries made wide use of their Mariann figure on official documents, currency and in art. Representing similar ideals, Columbia took on some similar attributes. She is often depicted wearing the Phrygian cap, also harkening back to classical civilization and representing liberty. She is depicted draped in Roman attire. She is sometimes adorned with a star, the stars and stripes and holding a book or torch. The Statue of Liberty, dedicated in 1886, is an amalgam of Columbia and the Goddess of Liberty. In 1893, she lent her name to the Chicago Columbian Exposition, the glorious world’s fair held in Chicago which showcased the French neoclassical architecture known as Beaux-Arts. And Columbia helped sell war bonds through the world wars.

 "Be Patriotic" poster by Paul Stahr, ca. 1917-18 Gouache on paper c.1917-1918
Herbert Hoover Library, National Archives and Records Administration

Although use of the name Columbia has all but died away except in the naming of ships and spacecraft, two icons of American industry still bear her name – Columbia Records and Columbia Pictures, both of which used or still use the allegorical figure of Columbia to identify their brands.

Don't forget! Columbia has her eye on you and expects you to vote for the good of the nation
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2011 Antiquarianation All Rights Reserved


  1. I'm going to have to share this post with Dwight. I expect that he will become an avid follower :-)

    Great stuff!


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