Columbia (name)

Personified Columbia in American flag gown and Phrygian cap, which signifies freedom and the pursuit of liberty, from a World War I patriotic poster

Columbia (ə/; LUM-bee-ə) is the female personification of the United States. It was also a historical name used to describe the Americas and the New World. It has given rise to the names of many persons, places, objects, institutions and companies; for example: Columbia University, the District of Columbia (the national capital of the United States), and the ship Columbia Rediviva, which would give its name to the Columbia River. Images of the Statue of Liberty largely displaced personified Columbia as the female symbol of the United States by around 1920, although Lady Liberty was seen as an aspect of Columbia.[1] The District of Columbia is named after the personification, as is the traditional patriotic hymn "Hail Columbia", which is the official vice presidential anthem of the United States Vice President.

Columbia is a New Latin toponym in use since the 1730s for the Thirteen Colonies. It originated from the name of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and from the ending -ia, common in Latin names of countries (paralleling Britannia, Gallia, and others).

History

Political cartoon from 1860 depicting Stephen A. Douglas receiving a spanking from Columbia as Uncle Sam looks on approvingly
Columbia in an 1865 Thomas Nast cartoon asking the government to allow black soldiers to vote
Columbia and an early rendition of Uncle Sam in an 1869 Thomas Nast cartoon having Thanksgiving dinner with a diverse group of immigrants[2][3]
A defiant Columbia in an 1871 Thomas Nast cartoon shown protecting a defenseless Chinese man from an angry Irish lynch mob that has just burned down an orphanage
This 1872 painting titled American Progress depicts Columbia as the Spirit of the Frontier, carrying telegraph lines across the Western frontier to fulfill manifest destiny
Columbia (representing the American people) reaches out to oppressed Cuba with blindfolded Uncle Sam in background (Judge, February 6, 1897; cartoon by Grant E. Hamilton)
Columbia wearing a warship bearing the words "World Power" as her "Easter bonnet" (cover of Puck, April 6, 1901)

Early

The earliest type of personification of the Americas, seen in European art from the 16th century onwards, reflected the tropical regions in South and Central America from which the earliest travellers reported back. These were most often used in sets of female personifications of the Four Continents. America was depicted as a woman who, like Africa, was only partly dressed, typically in bright feathers, which invariably formed her headress. She often held a parrot, was seated on a caiman or alligator, with a cornucopia. Sometimes a severed head was a further attribute, or in prints scenes of cannibalism were seen in the background.[4]

18th century

Though versions of this depiction, tending as time went on to soften the rather savage image into an "Indian princess" type, and in churches emphasizing conversion to Christianity, served European artists well enough, by the 18th century they were becoming rejected by settlers in North America, who wanted figures representing themselves rather than the Native Americans they were often in conflict with.[5]

Massachusetts Chief Justice Samuel Sewall used the name Columbina (not Columbia) for the New World in 1697.[6] The name Columbia for America first appeared in 1738[7][8] in the weekly publication of the debates of the British Parliament in Edward Cave's The Gentleman's Magazine. Publication of Parliamentary debates was technically illegal, so the debates were issued under the thin disguise of Reports of the Debates of the Senate of Lilliput and fictitious names were used for most individuals and placenames found in the record. Most of these were transparent anagrams or similar distortions of the real names and some few were taken directly from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels while a few others were classical or neoclassical in style. Such were Ierne for Ireland, Iberia for Spain, Noveborac for New York (from Eboracum, the Roman name for York) and Columbia for America—at the time used in the sense of "European colonies in the New World".[9]

By the time of the Revolution, the name Columbia had lost the comic overtone of its Lilliputian origins and had become established as an alternative, or poetic name for America. While the name America is necessarily scanned with four syllables, according to 18th-century rules of English versification Columbia was normally scanned with three, which is often more metrically convenient. For instance, the name appears in a collection of complimentary poems written by Harvard graduates in 1761 on the occasion of the marriage and coronation of King George III.[10]

Behold, Britannia! in thy favour'd Isle;
At distance, thou, Columbia! view thy Prince,
For ancestors renowned, for virtues more;[11]

The name Columbia rapidly came to be applied to a variety of items reflecting American identity. A ship built in Massachusetts in 1773 received the name Columbia Rediviva and it later became famous as an exploring ship and lent its name to new Columbias.

After Independence

No serious consideration was given to using the name Columbia as an official name for the independent United States,[citation needed] but with independence the name became popular and was given to many counties, townships, and towns as well as other institutions.

Carte de visite (c. 1866) featuring a woman dressed as Columbia and a man dressed as a Revolutionary War general

In part, the more frequent usage of the name Columbia reflected a rising American neoclassicism, exemplified in the tendency to use Roman terms and symbols. The selection of the eagle as the national bird, the heraldric use of the eagle, the use of the term Senate to describe the upper house of Congress and the naming of Capitol Hill and the Capitol building were all conscious evocations of Roman precedents.

The adjective Columbian has been used to mean "of or from the United States of America", for instance in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, Illinois. It has occasionally been proposed as an alternative word for American.

Columbian should not be confused with the adjective pre-Columbian, referring to a time period before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.