Before Uncle Sam, the Symbol of the United States was the Goddess Columbia

Matthew Gaskill
Featured image

The capital of the United States is the “District of Columbia.” The capital city of South Carolina is Columbia. One of the most prestigious and oldest American universities is Columbia. One of the biggest movie companies in America is called Columbia. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why? Who or what is this “Columbia” and why is our capital named after it?

From the late 1700s to the early 1900s, the United States was mostly symbolized not by “Uncle Sam” nor the Statue of Liberty. Uncle Sam was not developed as a story/symbol until the end of the War of 1812 and did not become really popular until WWI.

J. M. Flagg’s 1917 poster was based on the original British Lord Kitchener poster of three years earlier. It was used to recruit soldiers for both World War I and World War II. Flagg used a modified version of his own face for Uncle Sam, and veteran Walter Botts provided the pose.

The Statue of Liberty was not dedicated until 1886. Of course, America has been symbolized by the Bald Eagle since 1782, but though the great bird fills in for America in a lot of ads, propaganda and other media, but a bird is not a “personification,” is it?

Low angle view of Statue Of Liberty in Liberty Island, New York City, NY, USA.

It may surprise you, but from pre-colonial times until WWI, the most popular personification of the American colonies/the United States was a woman – specifically, a goddess. Her name is Columbia, and she has a distinctly Roman look about her.

This should not come as a surprise. For centuries, Europeans had looked back to the Roman Republic/Empire as a symbol of glory, unity, order, and believe it or not – peace. Rome was both the epitome of warrior culture and the enforcer of peace and unity. Nations that could successfully integrate Roman symbols into their national identity lent themselves an air of stability, glory, and power.

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

The Byzantine Empire was also called the “Eastern Roman Empire,” though its capital was at Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). Although for much of its history the Byzantines spoke and wrote Greek under the rule of Greek emperors, the government and military were Roman, and the empire was looked upon as the continuation of the Roman Empire.

The Christian “Holy Roman Empire” begun under Charlemagne also borrowed much of its authority from Rome. The Pope is sometimes known as the “Vicar of Rome.” Latin is still the official language of the Catholic Church. Nations all over the world, especially in the West, have used Roman architecture and statuary as a template for their own buildings and monuments.

Columbia at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Photo by MartinRe CC BY-SA 3.0

In colonial and post-colonial times, the two European nations that America had the closest relationship to were Great Britain and France – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The Romans called Great Britain “Britannia” after its native Britons and centuries afterward, one of the symbols of the British Isles was a goddess-like figure with the same name. One of the most well-known patriotic songs in the world is “Rule, Britannia.”

Personification of Columbia, from a Columbia Records phonograph cylinder package.

After the French Revolution, when most French wanted to throw off all vestiges of the Old Regime, another Roman goddess rose up. This was “Marianne”– she was the symbol not just of France, but of the French Republic (which leaned heavily on Roman ideas of government), and the personification of the revolutionary ideals of Liberty Equality and Brotherhood.

Bust of Marianne sculpted by Théodore Doriot, in the French Senate. Photo by Super sapin CC BY-SA 3.0

Marianne was sometimes symbolized as a goddess, but also took on the appearance of “normal” French women to illustrate the notion that government derived its consent from the governed. Marianne is most often seen wearing a Phrygian cap — a red sock-like hat that takes its name a Greek (not a Roman) province. The Phrygian cap was seen as a representation of democratic government, and the polar opposite of the crowns worn by the French monarchy.

6 World famous landmarks that are hiding something from the public

America, being a new country, was based in the main not only by European culture but also by European ideas (including those of the French Enlightenment – which had its roots in ancient Rome). When George Washington went into retirement after the Revolutionary War (instead of becoming “king,” like some wished), he was called the “American Cincinnatus,” after the Roman Republican general who voluntarily gave up power in the 5th Century BC. He was again given this nickname after he walked away from the presidency after two terms, laying down power when he could have kept it.

Columbia wearing a warship bearing the words ‘World Power’ as her bonnet (cover of Puck, April 6, 1901).

The American continent was referred to as Columbia as far back as George III. The name is part of a language trend taking place at the time — “New Latin,” in which many European languages attached Latin endings or Latin sounds to words and places. Again, this was meant to lend them an air of authenticity, authority and age.

Columbia with U.S. flag.

France was also sometimes represented or referred to as “Gallia,” Switzerland is known as”Helvetia,” Ireland “Hibernia,” Scotland “Caledonia.” Portugal and Germany also have “Latin” alter egos: “Lusitania” and “Germania,” respectively. The Americas having been “discovered” by Columbus – the area became known poetically as “Columbia.” This also happened in the case of Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian map-maker whose first name became “America.”

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 the symbol is most often seen dressed in a Roman toga, with a wreath of olive branches, or, in a bow to Enlightenment ideals, a Phrygian cap. Sometimes her toga is decorated in the colors of the American flag, but sometimes it is white – to represent “purity.”

In political cartoons, paintings and drawings, Columbia might be seen in ragged or dirty clothes to symbolize a tough time that American is going through – and the dirt is sometimes on her gown to illustrate a particularly corrupt theme or era.

Political cartoon from 1860 depicting Stephen A. Douglas receiving a spanking from Columbia as Uncle Sam looks on approvingly

In times of war, Columbia was seen with a torn gown, and perhaps a “Captain America” type shield. During war, she was almost always seen with a broadsword in hand, one arm extended forward to exhort the U.S. population to great effort and sacrifice.

In this role, she is often depicted as an ancient “Fury,” one of the ancient goddesses of punishment and retribution. Likewise, she is depicted as a Fury in political or social cartoons about correcting an injustice.

After the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, Columbia was seen as a mother, welcoming her returning troops with open arms and affection. She also assumed this role in political cartoons if she was protecting the innocent or helpless, such as poor children, abused workers or immigrants.

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.

At times of great national prosperity and/or pride, Columbia is seen as a shining white-clad beautiful goddess on a mountaintop. This is the symbol of Columbia Pictures.

By the time of WWI, Columbia was used along with Uncle Sam to raise money, encourage men to draft and raise interest in all sorts of other wartime necessities. However, though she and Sam were victorious in WWI, by the 1920s Columbia had sort of faded out as a national symbol, supplanted by the more masculine and industrious Uncle Sam, and the figure of the Statue of Liberty. (Though “Lady Liberty” has much in common with Columbia, she is not the same representation.)

Read another story from us: Woman who uncovered racism as reason for Japanese internment in U.S. dies

In the first part of the 20th century, American culture was changing. Women were getting the vote, and taking up some more traditional male occupations. An ideal, highly feminized figure was not what women wanted – this is much the reason why Rosie the Riveter of WWII fame was not Columbia in overalls, but a normal everyday woman – doing what was previously considered “mans work.”


Matthew Gaskill holds an MA in European History and writes on a variety of topics from the Medieval World to WWII to genealogy and more. A former educator, he values curiosity and diligent research. He is the author of many best-selling Kindle works on Amazon.