September 13 is Uncle Sam day, but before Sam, Columbia was the symbol of America
Columbia is sadly a long-forgotten symbol of America, but her persona lives on in American culture today from clothing lines, movie studios, superheroes and more. So, who is Columbia and where did she come from? Columbia is the personification of America. When America was being born into a new nation, it was common among other nations to have their own goddesses. The idea of a goddess came from Roman culture and they defined everything from war to thunder with a god or goddesses. The American Founders were enthralled by the Romans and wanted to be like them and look like a real nation who had a goddess. So, they created one.
Chief Justice Samuel Sewall of Massachusetts wrote a poem in 1697 suggesting the American colonies be called Columbina, a feminized version of Christopher Columbus’ last name. The name continued to evolve and in 1775, Phillis Wheatley, a slave and the first black published poet in America wrote an ode to George Washington called “His Excellency General Washington” to encourage his fight for freedom during the Revolutionary War. The poem reads:
Celestial choir! enthron’d 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 her offspring’s fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!
The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.
Muse! Bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,
Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or think as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honors – we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!
One century scarce perform’d its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix’d are thee yes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.
Columbia became a symbol for American ideals during wars such as the American Revolution, War of 1812, and World War I, as well as the subject of political cartoons and literary works. Columbia was dressed to show American ideals. She wore the cap of Liberty, carried the sword of Justice, olive branch of peace, and laurel wreath of victory. Up until 1931 “Hail, Columbia” was considered the unofficial national anthem.
Columbia was a battle cry during the American Revolutionary War and was ever-present in the War of 1812 and World War I, but her spotlight began to fade with the introduction of Uncle Sam during the War of 1812. Today, Uncle Sam is the most well-known American Symbol. At first, he was only representing the American government, so he and Columbia could co-exist. Uncle Sam showed the state of the government while Columbia showed the state of its people. After World War I, was when she became an icon of the past even though she was on every poster leading up to the war. When “The Star-Spangled Banner” became America’s official national anthem, the way Americans saw their country changed, Columbia slowly faded away. By the time World War II started, Uncle Sam was alone on posters calling for Americans to fight.
So, who is Uncle Sam? Legend has it that Samuel Wilson tried to enlist in the revolutionary army, but at the age of 14 was too young. Instead, he took care of the cattle that were the food supply for the army. When the war ended, he and his brother moved to Troy, NY, and started a meat business. When the War of 1812 broke out, the army had troops at Fort Crailo, just a few miles from Troy. The men had to eat, so they ordered meat from the Wilson brothers. Samuel checked each meat shipment and placed an EA-US stamp on it. EA stood for Elbert Anderson, who ordered the meat for the army, and the US stood for United States. When men in the kitchen saw it, they joked that EA stood for ‘eat away’ and US was for Uncle Sam which was what Sam Wilson’s employees called him. The joke caught on and when Elbert Anderson saw the stamp and asked what it stood for; he was told “They stand for Uncle Sam. It’s his meat that feeds the army” and an American symbol was born.