Kerri McIntire .
Part 1: Historical Background
It is generally accepted that America takes its name from a man. Amerigo (aka Americus) Vespucci, an Italian navigator born in 1454, was one of the first to propose that the shores where Christopher Columbus had landed were not Asian, but indeed a “Mundus Novus.” In 1499 and 1502 Vespucci voyaged to the southernmost mainland—first for Spain and next for Portugal—writing extensively of his experiences. By 1507 cartographer Martin Wardseemüller had called this lower continent America. The label stuck, and eventually came to be the name by which the entire ‘New World’ was known.
Other theories exist, but if indeed Vespucci is the source, then Wardseemüller chose to use the feminized Latin version of the explorer’s first name as his inspiration. Then, as now, all the other continents had such feminized names. The seven that we know today are Europe (Europa), Africa, Asia, Australia, Antarctica, North America and South America. What would be unusual is that it wasn’t the surname, Vespucci, which was used. To this end, others have argued that these new lands were actually named for Richard Ameryk, a Welshman with ties to navigator John Cabot, who sailed west in 1497 under the flag of England.
Whatever the origin, America was feminine, and its personalization as a womanly depiction of the emerging nation of the United States of America is found before the Revolutionary War. She was represented in simple Native American garb, standing in contrast to the Old World’s overly cosseted caricature. In a 1774 engraving, Paul Revere (yes, that Paul Revere) “uses what appears to be an Indian woman to depict America being subjugated by British ministers, who are forcing her to drink vile tea for her own good. The engraving comes as close as it dare to depicting the rape of America. Here the lady portrayed as America is wearing a classic draped gown that has been torn away from her body.” The preceding quote is from a wonderful online journal about 18th century American women.
Yet America was not the only female name for the new continents. By 1738, Columbia had appeared as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek moniker for the European colonies. Penned, reputedly, by committed Tory and British lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson, it was based on the surname of Christopher Columbus. Others contend that Columbia is of a much earlier origin, crediting Chief Justice Samuel Sewell of the Massachusetts Bay Colony with coining it in a 1697 poem. There is agreement, though, that by the time of the Revolutionary War it had become established as an alternative, or poetic name for America.
Wikipedia tells us that Columbia the persona debuted as a quasi-mythical figure in 1776 in the poetry of former slave Phyllis Wheatley. In the political cartoons of the 19th and early 20th century, this personification was sometimes called “Lady Columbia” or “Miss Columbia.” She was a classical goddess of the New World, comparable to the British Britannia, the Italian Italia Turrita and the French Marianne. Wikipedia continues: “The image of the personified Columbia was never fixed, but she was most often presented as a woman between youth and middle age, wearing classically draped garments decorated with the stars and stripes; a popular version gave her a red-and-white striped dress and a blue blouse, shawl, or sash spangled with white stars. Her headdress varied; sometimes it included feathers reminiscent of a Native American headdress, sometimes it was a laurel wreath but most often it was a cap of liberty.” (This liberty, or Phrygian, cap, is a soft conical cap with the top pulled forward. In late Republican Rome, such a cap served as a symbol of freedom from tyranny. It has been used to symbolize liberty in numerous countries of the Americas.)
Returning to the America Depicted As A Woman blog, we find that this version of the icon begins to shed her Native appearance in the course and aftermath of the War of Independence. In a time of battle, she begins to look like Minerva, the Roman warrior goddess who was equated with the Greek Athena. A particularly interesting image, entitled “Venerate The Plough,” is a 1786 etching from Columbian Magazine (nice name!). It shows a womanly figure more evocative of a grain goddess such as Ceres sanctifying the honest labour of a ploughman. Along with her halo of thirteen stars she still sports the Native American headdress feathers. The message is that in this new nation founded on Democracy, the common workingman has a place of honor, a voice and a responsibility in the cause of freedom. You find the same “Venerate the Plough” quote from Congressman David Ramsay, a doctor from South Carolina, who went on to encourage this fledgling country to extend personal dignity to all, even to those whom some considered “inferior.” (The underlining is mine.)
Venerate the plough, the hoe, and all the implements of agriculture. Honour the men who with their own hands maintain their families, and raise up children who are inured to toil, and capable of defending their country. Reckon the necessity of labour not among the curses, but the blessings of life. Your towns will probably e’re long be engulphed in luxury and effeminacy. If your liberties and future prospects depended on them, your career of liberty would probably be short; but a great majority of your country must, and will be yeomanry, who have no other dependence than on Almighty God for his usual blessing on their daily labour. From the great excess of the number of such independent farmers in these States, over and above all other classes of inhabitants, the long continuance of your liberties may be reasonably presumed.
Let the hapless African sleep undisturbed on his native shore, and give over wishing for the extermination of the ancient proprietors of this land. Universal justice is universal interest. The most enlarged happiness of one people, by no means requires the degradation or destruction of another. It would be more glorious to civilise one tribe of savages than to exterminate or expel a score. There is territory enough for them and for you. Instead of invading their rights, promote their happiness, and give them no reason to curse the folly of their fathers, who suffered yours to sit down on a soil which the common Parent of us both had previously assigned to them: but above all, be particularly careful that your own descendants do not degenerate into savages. Diffuse the means of education, and particularly of religious instruction, through your remotest settlements. To this end, support and strengthen the hands of public teachers, and especially of worthy clergymen. Let your voluntary contributions confute the dishonourable position, that religion cannot be supported but by compulsory establishments. Remember that there can be no political happiness without liberty; that there can be no liberty without morality; and that there can be no morality without religion.
It is now your turn to figure on the face of the earth, and in the annals of the world. You possess a country which in less than a century will probably contain fifty millions of inhabitants. You have, with a great expence [sic] of blood and treasure, rescued yourselves and your posterity from the domination of Europe. Perfect the good work you have begun, by forming such arrangements and institutions as bid fair for ensuring to the present and future generations the blessings for which you have successfully contended.
May the Almighty Ruler of the Universe, who has raised you to Independence, and given you a place among the nations of the earth, make the American Revolution an Era in the history of the world, remarkable for the progressive increase of human happiness!
(The preceding passage is taken from Congressman Ramsay’s 1789 The History of the American Revolution, Vol. 2)
The civic ideals and promises of freedom as put forth in the founding documents of this country inspired their reverential encapsulation into an icon of feminine virtue – woman as both someone who protects and must be protected. As the author of the America Depicted As A Woman blog post states: “… the new American lady is evolving into a calmer, more self-assured representation of the new nation. Soon she will be the depiction of the new nation, Lady Liberty.”
The previously linked article on Columbia by Marylynne Pitz from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also traces this transition into “Lady Liberty.” She reports that the beginning of the end to Miss Columbia’s image may have occurred when the Statue of Liberty was unveiled in New York Harbor in 1886. The 18th Century American Women blog also has a page dedicated to the history of Lady Liberty, especially as she associates with female July 4th oratory. From the site: “Their speeches usually were not specifically about the signing of the document or about the founding fathers, the more immediate goal was to praise & inspire the local defenders of freedom who were alive and present at the moment. These female orators could be viewed as the embodiment of Lady Liberty herself.”
Liberty as a woman goes back to antiquity. And this leads me to one of the most interesting sites I found on the topic of the American “Goddess.” I don’t feel I can trace the history of this with any more diligence than Selena Fox does in her online article, The Goddess of Freedom: From Libertas to Lady Liberty. Ms Fox is a practicing spiritual counselor, and takes the promises of a personified America to heart. In her words: “To many contemporary Wiccans and other Pagans, Lady Liberty is more than a symbol. She is a powerful and ancient Goddess who can guide, inspire, protect, and comfort.”
Part 2: Public Examples
Images of the feminized Liberty appear in many places and in many forms in America. She is on the New York State Flag along with the Goddess of Justice.
She is on the back of the Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the center holding a wand and pileus in her right hand. Her companions here are the Goddesses Aerternitas (Eternity) and Ceres (Fruitfulness), both also holding objects related to their divine jurisdiction …
The Great Seal of New Jersey also has Libertas and Ceres, personifying the state motto “Liberty and Prosperity.”
Selena Fox, on her Goddess of Freedom site which I link to in my first article, writes about this wave of government-sponsored and public depictions:
“As more states were formed in the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries, some of them also chose to include Liberty imagery as part of their iconography. In addition, Lady Liberty images appeared on coins, paintings, stamps, and in sculptures throughout the land, including the colossal bronze Statue of Freedom, which was commissioned in 1855 and in 1863 set on the top of the dome of the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, where it can still be seen today.”
An interesting thing to note about the Statue of Freedom, created by sculptor Thomas Crawford, is that she does not have her trademark Liberty or Phrygian Cap as shown on the New York State Flag and the Great Seals of Virginia and New Jersey. Historically, a similar soft conical hat called a pileus was associated with liberated slaves, who wore it as a symbol that they were no longer in servitude. The U.S. Secretary of War at the time that Crawford was working on the Statue of Freedom sculpture was Jefferson Davis. Davis well knew the practice of manumission in ancient Rome, wherein freed slaves covered their newly shorn heads with the pileus cap, and he argued that it might be construed that the American government was suggesting freedom for the African slave—something he was vehemently against …
In response to Davis’s objections, the statue was given a helmet and eagle feathers …
Less controversial is the headdress on America’s other famously sculpted Libertas—the Statue of Liberty. She was created by Frederic Bartholdi. (An interesting side note here is that Bartholdi relied on a man later famous for an iron tower for the design of her complex internal supporting skeleton—a Monsieur Eiffel.) “Lady Liberty” wears a crown of solar rays similar to the one worn by the Colossus of Rhodes, a depiction of the Sun God Helios which was one of the wonders of the ancient world. The seven rays on the crown represent the seven continents and seven seas. Selena Fox goes on to describe other attributes:
“The torch Liberty holds in Her right upstretched hand is the Flame of Freedom, and underneath Her feet are broken chains representing overcoming tyranny and enslavement. The tablet Liberty holds in Her left hand is inscribed with July 4, the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the USA as a nation. Her flowing gown is similar in design to depictions of Libertas in ancient Rome.”
Another well-known sculptor to render a vision of the Goddess of Freedom was Augustus Saint-Gaudens. One of his most recognized accomplishments is the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common. It features the floating figure of a woman—an inspiring presence to the African American troops of the 54th Massachusetts that Shaw led. She encourages the commitment they show to fight for the preservation of the Union and the opportunity to live in equal status.
Theodore Roosevelt commissioned Saint-Gaudens to design several new pieces of U.S. coinage. The president wanted the full figure of Liberty to be on the obverse of the $20 double eagle gold coin. To comply, Saint-Gaudens reworked the figure of a goddess he had sculpted for the 1903 Sherman Victory monument.
I live in Georgia just outside of Atlanta. Topping the dome on the State Capitol here is a figure affectionately called “Miss Freedom.” For too many years, I mistakenly believed that she was a depiction of the mythical sportswoman, Atalanta, and that the object she was holding up over her head was a golden apple. This because in the Greek tale Atalanta refuses to marry anyone who cannot beat her in a foot race, and a clever suitor wins her hand by distracting her during the contest with golden apples. But the object she holds is actually a torch, the ultimate symbol of guidance to a higher state. She is, of course, not Atalanta, but the Goddess of Freedom herself.
One quality that all classic images of the Goddess of Freedom radiates is resolve. She is not typically—unless the work is a piece of jarring social commentary—unbalanced. This is in fact why depictions of her in despair or demonstrating any loss of decorum are jarring. Still, she is feminine, womanly—a daughter, a consort, a mother. We could do a lot worse for a national emblem.
From Walt Whitman’s Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855):
“Liberty relies upon itself, invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light, is positive and composed, and knows no discouragement.”
Publication Date: 2011