Columbia (/kəˈlʌmbiə/; kə-LUM-bee-ə) is the personification of the United States. It was also a historical name used by some Europeans and Americans to describe the Americas, the New World. It is also a name given to the "Spirit of the Frontier", used to illustrate manifest destiny, among several other American political causes. It has given rise to the names of many persons, places, objects, institutions and companies; for example: Columbia University, the District of Columbia (the national capital of the United States), and the ship Columbia Rediviva, which would give its name to the Columbia River. Images of the Statue of Liberty largely displaced personified Columbia as the female symbol of the United States by around 1920, although Lady Liberty was seen as an aspect of Columbia. The District of Columbia is named after the personification, as is the traditional patriotic hymn "Hail Columbia", which is the official vice presidential anthem of the United States Vice President.
Columbia is a New Latin toponym in use since the 1730s for the Thirteen Colonies. It originated from the name of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and from the ending -ia, common in Latin names of countries (paralleling Britannia, Gallia, and others).
Massachusetts Chief Justice Samuel Sewall used the name Columbina (not Columbia) for the New World in 1697. The name Columbia for America first appeared in 1738 in the weekly publication of the debates of the British Parliament in Edward Cave's The Gentleman's Magazine. Publication of Parliamentary debates was technically illegal, so the debates were issued under the thin disguise of Reports of the Debates of the Senate of Lilliput and fictitious names were used for most individuals and placenames found in the record. Most of these were transparent anagrams or similar distortions of the real names and some few were taken directly from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels while a few others were classical or neoclassical in style. Such were Ierne for Ireland, Iberia for Spain, Noveborac for New York (from Eboracum, the Roman name for York) and Columbia for America—at the time used in the sense of "European colonies in the New World".
The name was perhaps first coined by Samuel Johnson, thought to have been the author of an introductory essay (in which Columbia already appears) which explained the conceit of substituting Lilliputian for English names; Johnson also wrote down the Debates from 1740 to 1743. The name continued to appear in The Gentleman's Magazine until December 1746. Columbia seems an obvious calque on America, substituting the base of the surname of the discoverer Christopher Columbus for the base of the given name of the somewhat less well-known Amerigo Vespucci. As the debates of Parliament, many of whose decisions directly affected the colonies, were distributed and closely followed in the British colonies in America, the name Columbia would have been familiar to the United States' founding generation.
In the second half of the 18th century, the American colonists were creating their own identity distinct from that of their British cousins. At that time, it was common for European countries to use a Latin name in formal or poetical contexts to confer an additional degree of respectability on the country concerned. In many cases, these nations were personified as pseudo-classical goddesses named with these Latin names. Located on a continent unknown to and unnamed by the Romans, Columbia was the closest that the Americans could come to emulating this custom.
By the time of the Revolution, the name Columbia had lost the comic overtone of its Lilliputian origins and had become established as an alternative, or poetic name for America. While the name America is necessarily scanned with four syllables, according to 18th-century rules of English versification Columbia was normally scanned with three, which is often more metrically convenient. For instance, the name appears in a collection of complimentary poems written by Harvard graduates in 1761 on the occasion of the marriage and coronation of King George III.
The name Columbia rapidly came to be applied to a variety of items reflecting American identity. A ship built in Massachusetts in 1773 received the name Columbia Rediviva and it later became famous as an exploring ship and lent its name to new Columbias.
No serious consideration was given to using the name Columbia as an official name for the independent United States, but with independence the name became popular and was given to many counties, townships, and towns as well as other institutions.
In part, the more frequent usage of the name Columbia reflected a rising American neoclassicism, exemplified in the tendency to use Roman terms and symbols. The selection of the eagle as the national bird, the heraldric use of the eagle, the use of the term Senate to describe the upper house of Congress and the naming of Capitol Hill and the Capitol building were all conscious evocations of Roman precedents.
The adjective Columbian has been used to mean "of or from the United States of America", for instance in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, Illinois. It has occasionally been proposed as an alternative word for American.
Columbian should not be confused with the adjective pre-Columbian, referring to a time period before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.
As a quasi-mythical figure, Columbia first appears in the poetry of African-American Phillis Wheatley starting in 1776 during the revolutionary war.
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 the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails.
Especially in the 19th century, Columbia was visualized as a goddess-like female national personification of the United States and of liberty itself, comparable to the British Britannia, the Italian Italia Turrita and the French Marianne, often seen in political cartoons of the 19th and early 20th century. This personification was sometimes called Lady Columbia or Miss Columbia. Such iconography usually personified America in the form of an Indian queen or Native American princess.
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 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 and sometimes it included feathers reminiscent of a Native American headdress while other times it was a laurel wreath, but most often it was a cap of liberty.
Early in World War I (1914–1918) the image of Columbia standing over a kneeling "Doughboy" was issued in lieu of the Purple Heart Medal. She gave "to her son the accolade of the new chivalry of humanity" for injuries sustained in "the" World War.
In World War I, the name Liberty Bond for savings bonds was heavily publicized, often with images from the Statue of Liberty. The personification of Columbia fell out of use and she was largely replaced by the Statue of Liberty as a feminine symbol of the United States. When Columbia Pictures adopted Columbia as its logo in 1924, she appeared (and still appears) bearing a torch—similar to the Statue of Liberty and unlike 19th-century depictions of Columbia.
Statues of the personified Columbia may be found among others in the following places.
Since 1800, the name Columbia has been used for a wide variety of items.