Washington & Columbia: Forever Linked


In honor of Washington’s Birthday / Presidents Day, I give you highlights of the connections between the Father of Our Country and our former poetic namesake and guardian spirit, Columbia. With their patriotic pedigrees, these two names mingle geographically, and as cultural ideals, too.

  • In 1775, with Columbia already a popular name for the American colonies, a new secular goddess with that name was created in a poem written to George Washington.
  • In 1787, The Columbia Rediviva, the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe, was accompanied by a tender ship called the Lady Washington.
  • The Columbia River, named after the aforementioned ship, flows through and partly defines Washington State.
  • Washington State was almost named Columbia.
  • The City of Washington and the District of Columbia, while historically distinct, now share the same borders.
  • America’s former national anthem, “Hail, Columbia”, was created when a poem was penned for the tune “The President’s March”, originally written for Washington’s inauguration.
  • George Washington University’s original name was the Columbian College, and then the Columbian University. Alas, confusion between them and Columbia in New York City necessitated a name change.
  • Columbia, South Carolina, while the first place in the world to be formally named Columbia, also considered the names City of Refuge, and Washington.
  • George Washington has been called “Columbia’s favorite son”, witnessed by this greeting card here.

A Hero honored by Columbia

Even as my parents have lived in Savannah for a decade, my visits with them centered on exploring nature out by the rivers, not in exploring the charming city. So a couple of days ago I ventured in, and found that Columbia dwells there, too.

On the monument to Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski you’ll find Columbia Continue reading

The Poet-Slave and American Liberty


On 11 July 1761, a recently kidnapped West African girl of seven or eight saw her journey into slavery end at the home of a Boston tailor and merchant named John Wheatley. She received her master’s surname, with her first name made Phillis—the very same name as the slave ship that carried her to Massachusetts.

Her slavers, taken by her precocity and character, gave her an excellent Classical and Christian education. While a slave, Phillis Wheatley became a poet of international repute. Relieved of most of her domestic duties, writing poetry was her vocation. Her poems must be read within the context of her life: that of a slave from Africa, of delicate health, marked by imagination and compassion, who is entirely dependent upon her slavers / patrons for her livelihood. Her protestations against the injustice of slavery are present, if not at the volume we moderns would want.

In a poem entitled to “His Excellency, George Washington”, she created a new vision: a classically inspired goddess figure whose sole purpose was freeing the Colonists from the yoke of British oppression. She called this goddess Columbia.

She wrote her poem and sent it to Washington in October 1775, when his tenure as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army was barely six months old. His prospects for success were far from certain. She implored him:

Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide

Literate colonists would have known of Columbia as a name for the colonies, dating from the 1730s. It’s used in a 1761 poem, by an unknown Harvard graduate and published in Boston, honoring the accession of George III:

Behold, Britannia! in thy favour’d Isle;
At distance, thou, Columbia! view thy Prince,
For ancestors renown’d, for virtues more

With its local provenance, we can surmise Wheatley knew this poem. View the words about George III, above, and compare them to her words about Washington here:

Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more

Britannia, one of England’s poetic names, also denoted a goddess figure dating from the Roman Occupation. To Colonials with a Classical world-view, it might follow that the American Colonies likewise deserved a guardian spirit. Until Wheatley’s tribute to an upstart colonial general, it seems no writer had developed the figure so completely.

According to one analysis, Wheatley created Columbia as an amalgam of Pallas Athena and Phoebus Apollo. Pallas Athena is the armed warrior strategist, and Apollo the god of the sun and poetic inspiration. Columbia’s hair is bound with Athena’s beloved olive branches, and also with laurel, made by Apollo into the poet’s crown. The writer’s assertion that it follows that Columbia comprises Wheatley as poet and Washington as warrior-strategist is interesting but harder to prove.

Some harshly judge Wheatley for encouraging Washington in his fight; after all, the man enslaved hundreds. We do know that Wheatley’s disdain for slavery was published in a letter found in the Connecticut Gazette in March 1774:

…for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call love of Freedom; it is impatient of oppression, and pants for Deliverance….

She speaks not just of her own heart here, but of all human hearts. The rest of the letter shows her to be an incrementalist for African-American liberty. But we must note her sarcasm when she writes that the hypocrisy of liberty-hungry slave owners “does not require the penetration of a Philosopher to determine.”

We see that Wheatley would recognize Washington’s hypocrisy, but more importantly, she would recognize that the very same principle of freedom living in her heart lives in his. We can imagine the young slave’s identification with this new leader: here is another person who feels oppression—but who actually is in a position to risk all (including a gruesome death for treason), take up arms, and fight.

Columbia, offered by Wheatley to Washington as his guide, is not unlike the poet and the general. Even for Columbia

freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms.

With Columbia’s help, Washington may win the freedom that Wheatley hopes eventually will inspire herself and her fellow Africans in America. Perhaps Columbia really does fuse Wheatley and Washington—one fights for freedom with her pen, the other with his sword.

In February 1776, Washington responded to Wheatley’s letter, offering his praise and an invitation to meet.

In that same month he penned a diffident letter to a friend and associate in Philadelphia, including a copy of Wheatley’s laudatory letter and poem. He was aware of the poem’s excellence, and most certainly, that its publication would aid his esteem as a leader.

By April, Thomas Paine published it in The Pennsylvanian Magazine. Herewith, the idea of Washington as Father of Our Country gained currency, and the birth of Columbia as American Liberty was announced.

Phillis Wheatley and George Washington met at the Continental Army’s headquarters at Cambridge in March 1776.

Further Notes:

A view from balcony of the Old South Meeting House in Boston, where slaves typically sat for services. Wheatley was a devout Congregationalist. Kieltyka-Brown Photography, Image Courtesy of Old South Meeting House.

  • You can find information on the end of Phillis Wheatley’s life (she died in 1784) in links below.
  • Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, an excellent study of her reputation both in the 1770s and in academia today. In it, he recounts that her poem for which she’s most reviled as a toady could actually be an ingenious indictment of slavery.
  • Here is a searchable, online copy of the 1773 edition of her book of poetry. Look in particular in the first few pages, with the attestation of Boston’s power élite before whom the poet-slave defended her poetic abilities.
  • The only contemporary image we have of Wheatley, shown above, was made by Scipio Moorhead, a similarly enslaved painter, and poet, too. Wheatley’s poem to Moorhead “To S.M., a young African Painter, on seeing his works” seems infused with the sweet hope of escaping the toils of this world into the world of imagination, or Heaven. She closes her vision with a return to reality: “Cease, gentle muse! The solemn gloom of night / now seals the fair creation from my sight.”
  • Here is a fine piece that discusses the alienation that must have characterized Wheatley’s life, and the circumstantial complexities that perhaps prevented her from being the freedom fighter we moderns would wish her to have been.
  • Here is an essay on Phillis Wheatley and her contribution to the mythical aura around George Washington, and generally places Wheatley’s poem to the commander in its social context.
  • A webpage that discusses the difficulties of living in Boston as a freed slave, and of various efforts to ameliorate this condition.

Columbia and the Flag

Happy Flag Day!

This photo is from Bunker Hill Day, 17 June, in the year 1917. The United States went to war in Europe on 6 April of that year. Columbia and Uncle Sam made many appearances during the Great War, particularly in recruiting posters. Alas, when folk look at these posters today, they know who Uncle Sam is, but who’s that lady wearing the liberty cap? America By Another Name‘s goal is to correct this state of affairs.

I honor Flag Day as a person with a particularly intense relationship with the flag. Months after 9/11 I felt such frustration—countless drivers, who in a fit of patriotism had attached a cloth flag to their car, blithely displayed dirty, tattered flags rippling at 70 miles an hour. Old Glory so abused—and so ubiquitously! While at the World Trade Center site on later anniversaries, I silently bristled as teenage boys in cargo shorts wore the flag as some sort of cape. Continue reading

Columbia: First in Peace, First in War


In Columbia, South Carolina, on 10 November 1860, the state general assembly called for a convention to consider seceding from the Union. Just days before, Republican Abraham Lincoln claimed victory with a platform that, at the very least, opposed expanding slavery into new states. Indeed, two years before, Lincoln predicted that with its current condition untenable, the nation would soon be either all-slave or all-free.

Gathering in Columbia weeks later, on 17 December the assembly voted to secede. With smallpox spreading in Columbia, the assembly reconvened in the state’s port city of Charleston. Secession was ratified on 20 December 1860. Charleston, of course, heard the first gunshots of the War Between the States the following spring.

South Carolina’s capital was the very first place in the world ever called Columbia. In a richly symbolic turn, it was in a place named for the United States that the nation’s tenuous unity met its most organized challenge.

As you may remember from a previous post, secession complicated the South’s relationship to Columbia-as-symbol; South Carolinians banned songs referring to it, but other states maintained their attachment.

I eagerly look forward to visiting Columbia, South Carolina. It’s the most populous political entity bearing the name in question, with a long and fascinating history. Here are two images of it: one depicting the ruins of war, and the other showing the thriving metropolis of today.

The Columbian Press: the Apple Computer of its day?


I like the word adventure, especially in its older sense: that which “happens by chance, fortune, or luck”. Today we’d typically call this serendipity. Adventure’s meaning grew to include taking a risk, “a trial of one’s chances”. The word adventure implies much greater agency or intent than serendipity. Going toward risk makes things happen.

When I set out in the morning seeking America By Another Name, I never know what I’ll find. One trip to the New York Public Library supplied my first knowledge of a patented creation called the Columbian Press. Many months later, I had a mere five hours to explore the northeast corner of Columbia County, New York. To my immense delight, there I met a man who actually owns a Columbian Press.

The man is Don Carpentier, founder and owner of Eastfield, a school for historic preservation in Rensselaer County. Amidst the buildings on this beautiful museum-of-American-architecture compound, Don has a print shop featuring the Columbian Press. The building itself came from Columbia County, just a few miles to the south. You can just make out the letters “Columbia Co. Agency” below the eave facing the lane.

The Columbian Press provided excellent pressure to the paper with little exertion by the pressman. It seems only five were sold in its namesake country; with the East Coast market already supplied with presses and the frontier market demanding portability, the Columbian Press made its mark in Europe. As an early and great American technological export, it was produced in the markets that it supplied.

The Columbian Press I photographed was purchased by Mr. Carpentier in England, place of its manufacture. As a device for communication marked by ease of use and unforgettable aesthetics, I suggest, with some irony, that it was the Apple Computer of its day.

Here are photos of the press and of Eastfield from that rainy October day last week. My first time excursion into Rensselaer County also had personal significance: the Van Rensselaer family are among my early American ancestors. I am particularly proud of Maria Van Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, the patrooness at Rensselaerswyck. Of all the women in the Dutch Colony of New Netherlands, perhaps more is known of her than any other.

Days of September

As September 2011 closes, we are reminded that it was three years ago this month that the United States’ economy took a nose-dive from which we still seek to recover. The economic difficulties started that month deeply inform my will to create this project exploring life in America in her places called Columbia.

Columbia was America’s poetic name, and the name for a secular goddess symbol for the United States. Cartoonists depicted this figure in different ways to suggest the mood of the American people.

Grant & Columbia

The country’s mood was definitely battered by the events of the September one hundred-thirty-eight years ago that are now called the Panic of 1873. In fact, it was on 30 September 1873 that the stock market reopened after a ten-day closure. The economic downturn started that year was unmatched until the Great Depression of the 1930s. Some historians believe our current economic troubles more closely resemble those of 1873 than those of 1929.

This Harper’s Weekly cover from October 1873 shows President Grant assisting Miss Columbia out of the ruins of Wall Street. I first saw this image at our very excellent National Portrait Gallery; a history-savvy curator placed it next to their portrait of this president. Thomas Nast, he who gave us a fat, well-fed Santa, is the cartoonist.

To view the Library of Congress webpage on this image, click here.

And, if you haven’t done so already, please click the like button here to follow my project on Facebook!

A personal note: Ulysses Simpson Grant and I are both descended from Matthew Grant. Matthew Grant was the second man to be clerk of the Town of Windsor in the Connecticut Colony. His diary is in the Connecticut State Library; a passage therein has Colonial America’s first reports execution for witchcraft.

The last Grant in my lineage was Aruma Grant; her grandson Halsey Fitch Northrup married Mary Adelia Lansing, who was descended from same Schuyler family as Grant’s first vice-president, Schuyler Colfax. Halsey and Mary are my great-great grandparents.

Martha, Columbia, America, Britannia

On Sunday a friend suggested we visit Tudor Place, a remarkable home and museum in Georgetown, District of Columbia. The day was stiflingly hot, and walking up the drive from the street one realizes that in 1805, wealth purchased access to the breeze. The home was designed by the architect of the United States Capitol. It has a storied history, and is handsomely interpreted with many objects from the nearby home of George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon.

It was Martha Parke Custis, granddaughter to America’s primary first lady, who built Tudor Place with her husband Thomas Peter. An $8,000 inheritance from step-grandfather George Washington funded the husband’s land purchase. As a woman, Martha was not allowed to own land.

Martha and Thomas had eight children, including five girls. They christened their first child as Martha. Their second child was born in 1797 and they named her—do you wanna guess? That’s right—Columbia.

Next came two boys. The next child, a girl, was christened with another patriotic name—America. In 1808, eight years after the death of their first Martha, the couple named another daughter the same. They buried this child six months later, while three months pregnant with their next and final child. This little girl was baptized Britannia in February 1815.

You may remember from the New York Times blog entry referenced here, Columbia, as a personification of the United States of America, was in part modeled on Britannia, the secular goddess who personified Britain since Roman times.

So, Britannia? you may puzzle. Just five months before Mrs. Peter had stood at her bedroom window, watching the handiwork of British arsonists on the new nation’s Capitol. What’s up with this new name-giving?

Though she couldn’t vote, Martha Custis Peter considered herself, in the family tradition, a staunch Federalist. Federalists favored strong ties with their erstwhile mother country, admiring their political system, even if disliking monarchy. Britannia’s middle name—Wellington—may hold the key to the parent’s intent. Wellington, recently made Duke of, was pursuing the tyrannical Napoleon around Europe, and would defeat him at Waterloo months after this little girl’s birth.

Columbia’s middle name is both familial and patriotic—Washington. Sister America’s middle name was Pinckney, after Revolutionary War officer and friend to George Washington, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. He was the Federalist presidential nominee in 1804 and 1808.

In this period, the newly organized United Kingdom’s government was slowly becoming more representational. Considering their naming the youngest child Britannia Wellington, you see that Martha and Thomas Peter were naming all their daughters after lands that love liberty, and men who fight tyranny.

The British heritage of the United States shows conspicuously in this list of surnames culled from the 1990 census (and yes, you see names from the historically concurrent Spanish Colonial period of Latin America is catching up).

As for girls names in the 1990 census, America herein ranks at 1702 out of some 4000, and Columbia is not found. The name Britannia is likewise absent, but the prefix “Brit” shows up 13 times. So, even if Britannia may no longer rules the waves, she just might, on the sly, be ruling the names.

This cartoon shows Columbia, personification of the United States, teaching Napoleon and Britain (as John Bull) lessons about freedom of the seas and the exercise of power. I do not know if this illustration shows a point of view that is either Federalist or Democratic-Republican.

Columbia and the Powers Abroad

Columbia—in the New York Times

From around 1775 until the 1920s, America had an allegorical character symbolizing the nation’s civic virtues, and she was called Columbia. A week before arriving here in the District, I happily discovered that Ellen Berg, the most widely cited expert on Miss Columbia, lives inside the Capital Beltway.

In her writings, and when I interviewed her back in the spring, Ms. Berg states that Miss Columbia’s heyday was during the Civil War. Cartoonist Thomas Nast of Harper’s Magazine, illustrators Currier & Ives, and so many others used her as a symbol for the United States in their work. Later, while doing my occasional reading of the New York Times‘ very excellent Civil War history blog, Disunion, it hit me—Ellen Berg’s expertise would be perfect here.

Having received her okay to pitch them, I networked to the right person, and he took interest and Ellen took it from there. As published on 2 July, Ms. Berg writes a much more cogent description of Miss Columbia than I possibly could. And there are wonderful illustrations by the aforementioned artists. You’ll find it for your edification and enjoyment here.