Sunday, June 30, 2024

The Evolution of America's Patriotic Images: Yankee Doodle, Uncle Sam, Miss Columbia, and Lady Liberty

Originally titled Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Spirit of '76 was painted in 1876 by Archibald MacNeal Willard for the centennial celebrations in Philadelphia.

Today, the most internationally recognized personification of the United States is Uncle Sam, but it wasn't always so. Before and during the Revolutionary War, the British Red Coats characterized ramshakle colonial soldiers as Yankee Doodle Dandies. It wasn't a compliment. The rousing British drinking song portrayed colonists as foppish, anti-royalists impugning their manhood.

The colonists were able to co-opt the insulting song and make it their own. Taking the song's melody, Edward Bangs--a Harvard University sophomore by day and a Minuteman by night--wrote fifteen new verses to the British song in 1775 and circulated the lyrics throughout New England. Yankee Doodle Dandy went from being an insult to a song of American national pride.

On September 7, 1813, Uncle Sam became the official nickname and image for the United States government. The name is attributed to cattle tender and meat packer Samuel Wilson. He supplied oak barrels of meat to the United States government for rations during the War of 1812. His workers stamped US on his government shipments, and he became known locally in Troy, New York as Uncle Sam. Soldiers soon picked up on the name.

Early on, the image of Uncle Sam did not have a standard appearance. Popular political cartoonist Thomas Nast is credited with the first image of Uncle Sam in a November 20, 1869 editorial cartoon in Harper's Weekly supporting the Fifteenth Amendment for universal sufferage. Uncle Sam (symbol of the government) and Columbia (symbol of the country) are hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for a group of diverse immigrants. Nash's Harper's Weekly editorial cartoon images of Uncle Sam helped establish the patriotic icon we know today.

The image we all recognize as Uncle Sam evolved over time. The long and lanky man with the white goatee and white hair, dressed in red and white striped pants, a dark blue frock coat, a white top hat with a blue starred band, and a red bow tie was the creation of James Montgomery Flagg for the famous 1917 World War I United States Army recruiting poster which was used again during World War II. Millions of copies were distributed establishing Uncle Sam as the national symbol of American patriotism and pride.

The earliest known personification of pre-United States appeared in 1738. Miss Columbia was the embodiment of liberty. European nations used the term "Columbia" to refer to the New World and then the thirteen colonies, based on the mistaken belief that Italian explorer Christopher Columbus discovered America. Miss Columbia's image was depicted as a strong, classical woman modeled after Greek goddess Athena and infused with a healthy dose of Americanism. She became a central figure in the narrative of early America, its values, its Westward expansion, and its promise of establishing the American ideals of liberty and justice for all.

Columbia's image was often seen in political cartoons in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but her dominance as America's favorite female icon was challenged in 1886 by the installation of the Statue of Liberty. The two iconic images co-existed for thirty years, but the personification of Columbia fell out of favor with the issuance of Liberty Bonds in support of the World War I war effort which had The Statue of Liberty's image printed on them.

When Columbia Pictures chose their trademark in 1924, they created a blended version of Miss Columbia with The Statue of Liberty pose, doing neither icon any favors. To compound Miss Columbia's troubles, some of America's most iconic coinage bore the image of Lady Liberty, who became the favored personification of liberty.


Columbia endures as the name of many cities and streets throughout the United States, as well as Columbia University in New York, Columbia Records, Columbia Pictures, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and the name of our ill-fated space shuttle which exploded in mid-air on February 1, 2003. 

Contemporary cartoonist for The Independent Weekly in Durham, North Carolina D.C. Rogers may have expressed it best, "One of the reasons Miss Columbia has declined is that The Statue of Liberty has risen." The most famous American monument to liberty was a gift from the people of France.

America's enduring symbol of freedom--The Statue of Liberty.

Lady Liberty's image also has a long and distinguished history on American coinage. A one cent coin was struck in 1793. Liberty's cameo image was considered unattractive with a wild mane of hair and a balding, sloped forehead. It was quickly retired making this coin one of the most sought after American coins for collectors.

In 1795, the Liberty Draped Bust silver dollar showed an attractive, middle-aged Lady Liberty with flowing hair held back with a decorative bow. She is surrounded by stars representing the number of states. This image of Lady Liberty was minted from 1795 until 1804. 

In 1878, George T. Morgan designed what is known as The Morgan Silver Dollar, prized by collectors because of its size and weight. The model for the coin, Anna Willness Williams, became known as the "Silver Dollar Girl." Morgan designed a cameo profile with Liberty's beautifully quaffed hair in a Phrygian cap which signifies freedom and the pursuit of liberty. This silver dollar was minted until 1921.

The Walking Liberty half dollar was minted from 1916 until 1947. This silver coin is rich with symbolism. Lady Liberty walks towards the dawn of a new day. She carries a bouquet of laurel and oak representing military and civil victories of the nation. Her outstretched arm imparts the spirit of liberty to others. She is clothed in a lovely, flowing gown representing the American flag, and she is wearing a Phrygian cap. The coin was reissued for collectors because of its exceptional beauty. It is also known as the American Silver Eagle because of the image on the reverse side.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this delightful history lesson.