Culture  /  Antecedent

Before Lady Liberty, There Was Lady Columbia, America's First National Mascot

The forgotten figure symbolized the hopes—and myths—of the early United States.
A political cartoon of Columbia spanking Stephen A. Douglas.

Library of Congress

The first and longest-ruling mascot of the United States made her debut before the country was even a country, appearing in 17th-century poems and sermons under the name “Columbina.” Samuel Sewall, a chief justice of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, captured her early ethos in a 1697 essay: She was, Sewall wrote, an emblem of the “New Heaven” of the American colonies.

By the early 18th century, she was known by the less diminutive “Columbia,” and she became ubiquitous in political cartoons, posters and newspapers. She was portrayed as a goddess, draped in a neoclassical gown and holding a sword, an olive branch and a laurel wreath as metaphors for justice, peace and victory. As Lady Columbia’s image spread across the country, particularly after the Revolution, she came to embody the nation’s highest aspirations—and its colonial ambitions. Though largely forgotten today, she reigned for two centuries as our collective emblem, and her biography offers a tale in miniature of the development of a young democracy.

As she guided colonial America, Lady Columbia served as a nurturing mother figure, but by the time of the Revolution, she was closer to an avenging angel. In 1775, during the first year of the war, the pioneering African American poet Phillis Wheatley sent General George Washington an ode to Columbia: “Columbia’s arm prevails … Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, / Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.”

Throughout the Revolution, Columbia was a source of strength, a rallying cry. By the end of the war, the victorious colonists celebrated their triumph by invoking her: “Hail Columbia, happy land, / Hail, ye heroes, heav’n-born band, / Who fought and bled in Freedom’s cause,” the lawyer and poet Joseph Hopkinson wrote in 1798. Hopkinson’s verses were soon set to music, and “Hail Columbia” became the country’s first, if unofficial, national anthem, sung throughout the 19th century.

When the War of 1812 began, Lady Columbia was sometimes joined on posters by a new figure, Uncle Sam; both offered a fierce embodiment of American independence. In the decades before the Civil War, both North and South invoked Columbia. In perhaps her most extraordinary appearance, Columbia showed off her strength as a disciplinarian: One 1860 cartoon depicts her spanking Stephen Douglas for having created a schism in the Democratic Party by proposing that laws about slavery should be left to individual states. “You have been a bad boy, Steve … and now I’ll pay you for it,” Columbia says as she swats Douglas.