xml/lby.00074.xml Icons of Liberty: Liberty and Freedom

David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom from "The Many Faces of Miss Liberty" (2005)

Transcribed from pages 233-241 of David Hackett Fischer's Liberty and Freedom. Published by Oxford University Press, 2005.


Popular as Uncle Sam and Yankee Doodle may have been, the most appealing images of liberty and freedom have always been female. It is interesting to observe how these feminine figures have changed through time. They descended from the ancient goddess of liberty, a timeless figure who represented an idea that derived its authority from an aura of eternal truth. In the early American republic, they became something very different—a symbol of modernity, endlessly redefined by the whirl of contemporary fashion—and they gained new meaning from their relevance to the present.

Let us begin with the goddess of liberty. Even before the American republic was born, she was more than two thousand years old. A Roman temple had been raised to her on the Aventine Hill as early as the third century before Christ. The Graachi renewed the Temple of Liberty in 13 B.C. Often she appeared on the coins of the Roman Republic, and later on those of the Roman Empire as well. Surviving images show her as woman of maturity with the stylized features of Greco-Roman temple sculpture and an abundance of ancient gravitas. She was instantly recognizable as a figure of liberty by the symbols around her. At her feet were the broken chains of bondage, or a smashed pitcher that symbolized the end of servitude. Sometimes she was accompanied by a cat, the animal that acknowledged no master. In her hands she offered the wand and pileus.

The Roman goddess of liberty became a familiar figure in the political iconography of early modern Europe. Addison celebrated her in the Tattler, as did many European writers. She appeared in Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, a major work that was much reprinted in early modern Europe. European artists and engravers often reproduced her image in highly stylized ways.

The goddess of liberty appeared as an ageless and immortal figure who existed outside time. Her features were carefully detailed, but in an abstract way. There was nothing individual about her. She symbolized an idea of liberty as an ancient, eternal, and universal principle, inherited from the distant past and applicable to the present and future without change. The goddess of liberty belonged to the ages.

After the American Revolution, this ageless figure began to change. By degrees, the ancient goddess was transformed into new female images of liberty and freedom. Many distinctive features persisted: the wand and pileus, and the white flowing robes of antiquity. But other elements disappeared. Among the first to go were the cat, the shackles, and the broken pitcher. Those changes were symbolic of a new way of thought. After 1776, liberty and freedom were seen not so much as release from bondage but as a condition of natural rights which free people gained at birth an preserved by their own efforts. Cats and chains and smashed pots were no longer appropriate to that expansive vision.

As those elements faded away, others appeared in the United States. They tended to associate liberty and freedom with the idea of a nation. In the 1780s, feminine images of liberty and freedom began to carry an American flag, or a shield with the national arms, or a bald eagle. Often they wore a distinctive American headdress, with stars and stripes. Indian feathers, or the needles of the northern white pine (Pinus strobes), or the leaves of the southern live oak (Quercus virginiana).

With these changes, the goddess of liberty became Columbia, an American image of liberty and freedom. She appears in Samuel Jennings's paintingLiberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences, done for the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1792. The artist represents liberty as a female figure who is less abstract and more animated than the Roman goddess had been. Her features were softer, more human. She is not standing but seated, inclining gracefully toward others. The grim gravitas of Roman goddess is gone. Columbia is young, blond, beautiful, and has a pleasant smile. She wears a white gown of simple dignity and carries wand and pileus of distinctive color. It is not the blood-red bonnet of the French Revolution, or the true blue of British iconography. Columbia's American liberty cap is white for virtue, innocence, and hope.

Behind this American figure are the sturdy columns of a Roman temple. In the foreground is a globe, with the New World foremost. In the background, a group of slaves are rallying around a liberty pole. Another group who have been emancipated from bondage are surrounded by books, papers, a painter's palette, a sculptor's bust, a musician's lyre, scientific instruments, and other symbols of the arts and sciences. Here is a new idea of universal freedom, as contingent on modern learning and enlightenment. It also represents liberty as secular rather than sacred, a product of human effort rather than the gift of a goddess.

In the early nineteenth century, other artists represented Columbia in another way. Her images often combined elements of the goddess of liberty with Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war. Minerva's helmet and spear were added to make Columbia appear more bellicose and better able to defend her own freedom and independence.

When Columbia's new image was complete, Americans raised her on a pedestal, high above their public buildings. She became a figurehead on sailing ships, a finial on storefronts, a decorative zinc statue in private homes, a monument on public buildings, and a familiar figure in the American republic.

While Columbia was settling into her long career, another female image of liberty appeared. She sprang from the palette of British artist William Hamilton, who in 1791 painted a graceful watercolor on a classical theme called Hebe Offering a Cup to the Eagle (Jove). The painting told the old story of Hebe, a young woman who had a special place in Greek mythology. Zeus came to her in the form of an eagle. She fed him from an upraised bowl and won the favor of the gods.

Hamilton's work inspired American artist Edward Savage to do a painting called Liberty in the Form of the Goddess of Youth Giving Support to the Bald Eagle. The central figure is a beautiful young woman in a diaphanous dress with deep décolletage of the Directory style. Her dark hair is loose and curly, in the mode that was popular in the 1790s. She is a vision of simplicity and innocence, with flowers in her hair and a bright garland of blossoms on her shoulder. With an outstretched arm this goddess of youth offers a cup of nourishment to an American bald eagle who is hovering above her. In the clouds over her head are the wand and pileus of liberty, with an American flag attached. Above the eagle, rays of divine light emerge from dark clouds. Below are broken symbols of tyranny: a smashed scepter and a key to the Bastille, which Lafayette had sent to George Washington.

In the background is a warning to despots. Edward Savage has painted his goddess of liberty on a hill near Boston, at the end of the campaign that drove General Gage's army from the town. A bolt of Jove's lightning descends from the cloud of liberty and strikes the spire of Old North Church, as the British Regulars flee to ships in the harbor. The young American goddess crushes beneath her foot a star and garter, the proud emblem of British kingship and aristocracy. Tyrants beware!

Americans loved Edward Savage's vision of American liberty as a goddess of youth. Many artists, amateur and professional, copied it in oil and watercolors, on paper and canvas, velvet and glass. So popular did it become that Chinese artists reproduced it for the American market. One of the most successful copies was a handsome reverse painting on glass by American artist Abijah Canfield, who closely followed Savage's design and reinforced its major themes. Canfield's Liberty became even more youthful and innocent; his warning to tyrants grew darker and more dire.

In 1796, the United States Mint at Philadelphia began to issue a new set of coins that featured the head of a woman, surrounded by a galaxy of silver stars and the word LIBERTY in bright shining letters. At first sight, they looked much like earlier American coins that had used a stylized image of Libertas Americana. But this image was something new. It was the fresh face of a young American, Anne Willing Bingham of Philadelphia.

Nancy Bingham, as her family and friends knew her, is not widely remembered today, but she was one of the most eminent women of her age. An oil sketch by Gilbert Stuart shows strong fine-boned features, deep chestnut eyes, firm mouth, and full chin, all framed by a bright cascade of auburn hair. Her figure was said to be as striking as her face. French officers described her as "ravissante et charmante." Even a Loyalist lady wrote, "Speaking of handsome women brings Nancy Willing to my mind. She might set for the Queen of Beauty."

Born in Philadelphia, Anne Bingham was raised in a transatlantic family of great wealth and schooled in the Quaker tradition that gave serious attention to the education of women. She was admired for her "very ingenious" intellect and her "conversational cleverness in French and English." She read widely, was deeply interested in public questions, and corresponded with Thomas Jefferson as an intellectual equal.

She was also a decided feminist. Jefferson, thinking to please her, made the mistake of complaining about the women of Paris. She replied, "We are irresistibly pleased with them, because they possess the happy art of making us pleased with ourselves. . . . Their education is of a higher cast, and by great cultivation they procure a happy variety of Genius, which forms their conversation, to please either the fop or the Philosopher. We are therefore bound to admire and revere them, for asserting our privileges, much as the friends of the Liberties of Mankind reverence the successful struggles of the American patriots." No wonder Abigail Adams wrote, "Taken altogether, Nancy Bingham was the finest woman I ever saw."

If women could have held office in the new republic, one wonders how high Anne Bingham might have gone, but her only career could be marriage and family. At the age of sixteen she married William Bingham, a Philadelphia financier who made himself one of the richest men in America. Her husband took her to London with a retinue of servants. Abigail Adams watched as Anne Bingham turned every head at the Court of St. James. The crowd murmured in amazement, "Is she an American?" Abigail Adams thought of Pope's line, "She moves like a goddess and looks like a queen," and wrote home, "I felt not a little proud of her." Her picture was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and cheap prints were sold in London shops as an image of beauty. She was twenty-one years old.

The Binghams returned to Philadelphia, built a huge mansion, and entertained lavishly. Anne Bingham was called "queen of the republican court." Abigail Adams wrote from Philadelphia on 24 December, "Mrs. Bingham has certainly given laws to the ladies here, in fashion and elegance; their manners and appearance are superior to what I have seen."

In 1796, she was at the pinnacle of her fame when the U.S. Mint needed a new design for its coinage. Chief engraver Robert Scott found a model for American coins in Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Anne Bingham. The design was very simple: a profile with a draped bust and loose flowing hair. Above her head was the single word LIBERTY. This new image represented liberty not as an ancient goddess but as a modern American woman. It was not abstract and general but highly individuated and as free-spirited as Anne Bingham herself. It was also a celebration of her femininity and her independent spirit. The design was well received, and the Mint adopted it for all denominations of American silver coins.

Anne Bingham herself was now in her thirties, and more beautiful than ever. Her life was crowded with events. Having married at sixteen, she became a grandmother in 1799 at the age of thirty-five. In 1800, she gave birth to a son, and her friends became concerned about her health, which was described as increasingly "delicate." She was suffering from tuberculosis, which grew into a galloping consumption. Her husband hired the best physicians, chartered a special ship, and took her to sea in hope of a cure. All of his wealth availed nothing. On May 11, 1801, Anne Willing Bingham died in Bermuda and was buried beside St. George's Harbor, beneath a stone inscribed with Tudor roses. She was thirty-seven years old.

The liberty coins that bore her likeness continued to be minted in many denominations until 1807 and were issued for special occasions as late as the 1830s. Altogether, her features appeared on more than twenty-three million coins, in a nation of six million people. They became the most widely distributed emblem of liberty in the new republic. An historian of American numismatics writes, "In the late 18th and early 19th century, all America had Anne Bingham in their pockets and purses." She remained a vision of American liberty long after her story was forgotten.

Nancy Bingham's image was followed by many fresh new faces, who were collectively called "Miss Liberty" during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Miss Liberty was very different from the grim Roman goddess, and also distinct from Columbia and even Anne Bingham. Unlike those more matronly figures, she was young, pretty, and sexy in a virginal way. Miss Liberty was an all-American girl, innocent and pure, the girl next door, an ordinary young person with democratic attitudes, egalitarian manners, and popular tastes.

America's Miss Liberty was also different from the Statue of Liberty, with which she is sometimes confused. That great Gallic symbol, with her upraised torch and book of laws, beckoned to all humanity. Miss Liberty was not the sort of girl to carry a torch for anyone, and she was rarely seen in the company of a book. Except in time of war, she was not much interested in events beyond America and was happy to live in her own world, at peace with her surroundings. Always Miss Liberty was lively and carefree, with a smile on her cherry-red lips, a bloom on her alabaster cheeks, and a twinkle in her bright blue eyes.

Miss Liberty kept up with the latest fashion. In the early republic, she wore loose high-waisted diaphanous gowns in the neoclassical Directory style. Later her costume became more romantic, with a fitted bodice, puffed sleeves, and flounced skirts. By the mid-nineteenth century she was a buxom Victorian beauty with a narrow waist, full breasts, plump arms, and sensual shoulders. A little later she wore tight corsets and a bustle. In the early twentieth century, Miss Liberty became a Gibson Girl with fine-boned features and a handsome Anglo-Saxon profile. Her flowing hair was elegantly coiffed. Her high-collared blouse and the long lines of her skirt bespoke the beauty of refinement. But always there was a spirit of strength and independence in her features.

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