xml/lby.00031.xml Icons of Liberty: from "From Indian Princess to Greek Goddess: The American Image, 1783-1815"

E. McClung Fleming , from "From Indian Princess to Greek Goddess: The American Image, 1783-1815," Winterthur Portfolio (1967)

Transcribed from pages 37-39 and 65-66 of E. McClung Fleming's "From Indian Princess to Greek Goddess: The American Image, 1783-1815." First published in Winterthur Portfolio III, 1967.


"With its independence and freedom established by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the United States of America set forth on the adventure of nationhood. The adoption of the Federal Constitution, the successful presidential administrations of Washington, the admission of the first new states, and evidences of growth and prosperity inspired Americans of every station to feel the promise of American life and the significance, for all mankind, of their experiment in republican government. The ideals of liberty, independence, federal union, opportunity, and plenty were held to be part of the legacy of the new nation and their attainment within reach.

In the national pride and aspiration of this era, there was continuous need to refer to the new nation as a living entity with a palpable spirit. Following an ancient impulse, Americans personified their country for a hundred purposes and occasions—to represent a grateful nation on Congressional medals, a dignified nation on official coins, a unified and prosperous nation on banners carried in civic parades, a nation interested in the arts and sciences, on frontispieces of national magazines, a noble, attractive nation in prints to be placed on the walls of homes, a heroic, powerful nation on the sculptured decoration of public buildings. The United States was actively and continuously represented by symbolic figures giving it a needed public image during the years from 1783 to 1815. The figures which artists employed to personify the country during these years reflect variant ways of thinking and feeling about the early Republic both in this country and abroad.

An analysis of this image immediately discovers a rich variety of symbolic figures used. In the immediately preceding era, from the beginning of the revolutionary consciousness in the Stamp Tax protests of 1765 through the military struggles of the embattled confederation to the peace of 1783, the American cause had been almost universally represented by the figure of the Indian Princess. Derived from the Indian Queen denoting the western hemisphere in the vigorous tradition of the Four Continents, the Indian Princess evolved from a dependant daughter to a free sister of Britannia. As attributes she acquired the liberty cap, the rattlesnake, and the American flag. It is doubtless natural that the following period could show no such unanimity in its choice of a symbol. More persons, on more occasions, were prompted to personify the nation, and more currents of taste were present to influence the artist's eye.

The first conclusion one reaches about the American image of these years, therefore, is that there was no single interpretation of it. What one discovers is the simultaneous use of four main figures. The Indian Princess is the first—familiar, historically venerable, remaining a vigorous, well-defined configuration. The second is the very popular Plumed Greek Goddess, a neoclassical transformation of the Indian Princess. Third, there were the three classical deities—Hercules, Minerva, and Liberty, with the latter predominating, and finally, the newly minted Columbia. A second conclusion about the American image is that no one of these four main symbolic figures seemed clearly to dominate the others, nor does there seem to be any steady development of preference for one over the other. Congressional medals favored, first, the Indian Princess, later Columbia; government coins, the American Liberty; decorative prints, the Plumed Goddess; cartoonists, Columb! ia. A third conclusion is that the impulse to personify the new country during these years of the neoclassic movement seems to have been marked more by eulogy and apostrophe than by humor, social criticism, or lusty patriotism. The Indian Princess, the Plumed Goddess, the American Liberty, and Columbia were the polite fancies of gentlemen of the genteel tradition. What the vernacular spirit would do with the American image becomes vividly apparent after the War of 1812, when first Brother Jonathan and then Uncle Sam bring an altogether fresh earthiness and colloquialism to the subject.

A fourth conclusion is that whichever personification of America was used, it was rarely used alone, and it was typically only a visual focal point among several rich, expressive symbols associated with the United States of America. These symbols, indeed, are perhaps more important than the personification and are certainly a fascinating study in themselves. Most basic is the American flag. Two other symbols, of equal importance, derive from the Great Seal: the American escutcheon or shield with its thirteen stripes and chief, and the American eagle, sometimes shown on the field of the American flag, sometimes on the shield, often standing protectively on the ground or flying in the air. Also popular during these years was the chain of states, ranging from thirteen to sixteen, with its vivid representation of the national motto, e pluribus unum, and the 'new constellation' of the stars of the states. Other basic symbols were the liberty pole and cap, and the Liberty Tree. Often associated with liberty was the ideal of Independence, sometimes written on the banner, often represented by a date, July 4, 1776. Occasionally the Constitution, represented by a temple with thirteen columns, would appear. Almost as important as the flag and the eagle was George Washington, sometimes delineated in full length, more often in portrait bust or profile, almost always in his uniform as a general. Frequently with Washington, occasionally alone, would appear Franklin, sometimes in a Roman toga, often in his coonskin hat. Along with Washington and Franklin might be invoked the memory of other Revolutionary War generals, statesmen, and battles. Four especially American symbols were the rattlesnake, the composite Negro-Indian Boy, the hogshead of tobacco, and Niagara Fallby. Finally, the cornucopia frequently suggests American abundance.

Analysis of the personifications of the United States is the more puzzling because the chief American symbols appeared with each of the four main personifications and furthermore because the names 'Minerva,' 'Liberty,' 'Columbia,' and 'America' were often used interchangeably. It is obvious that the impulse to represent the United States was strong, the vocabulary of meaningful symbols was rich, the resulting image was various. Perhaps the uncertainty of the image reflects a measure of uncertainty of self-interpretation by the young nation in a period of ambitious and turbulent self-identification in the family of nations" (37-39).

"Of the four major personifications of the United States represented in the visual arts during these years—the Indian Princess, the Plumed Greek Goddess, the American Liberty, and Columbia—two proved to be of diminishing and two of increasing importance. The Plumed Goddess turned out to be a neoclassic fancy with extremely limited usefulness for interpreting 'the Genius' of the country. The Indian Princess (largely indistinguishable from the Indian Queen) remained a popular folk figure throughout the nineteenth century, but became less and less identified with the spirit of the United States. On the other hand, as though in response to an impulse to retain and develop the one symbol specifically created to represent the new nation, Columbia grew in popularity and use. Apart from liberty, however, Columbia did not convey any one dominant moral quality, though she was associated variously with peace, justice, plenty, wisdom, the arts, and the sciences. As conviction grew in the young Republic that its single most passionately held ideal was liberty, it was inevitable that increasing use should be made of the American Liberty, and that the American Liberty and Columbia should become interchangeable. The feeling for the affinity of these two symbols at the level of formal and ceremonial expression utilizing feminine figures is one of the visible trends of the years from 1815 to 1860. An equally impressive trend is the resort in the vernacular arts to the masculine figures of Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam to supply the missing flexibility, vitality, and robustness to the American image.

During the years 1765 to 1783, the single figure of the Indian Princess, reaching for the liberty pole and cap, sufficed to embody the Genius of America. Between 1783 and 1815 a need was felt for three or four other feminine figures, including the Plumed Greek Goddess and Minerva, to embody the variant projections to the new nation. After 1815, only two of these, the American Liberty and Columbia—now often indistinguishable—retained their original and primary roles. Now, however, these feminine forms had to be supplemented by complementary masculine forms. The changing iconography of the American image reflected changing aspects of the American ethos" (65-66).

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