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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.