Just the other day, I found myself humming something that felt like an almost-forgotten song. As I hummed along (mindful of anyone thinking me completely bonkers), the tune brought me to a place I hadn’t expected to arrive. One couplet in particular tripped me up:
O Columbia! The gem of the ocean,
The home of the brave and the free…
As I mulled through the verses of that old patriotic song, one word continually stood out. That word was “Columbia,” and I wondered to myself: “Where did that word come from?” Just who was Columbia? Had she fallen off the boat along with Christopher? (I mean, we Mayflower descendants understand all too well the “falling off” of boats, don’t we, John Howland?)
I wondered if the name Columbia had any connection to New England. As I looked into it, I found an answer I did not expect, and, yet, one that feels especially meaningful now, during the month of February (and maybe just a wee bit more because this is February 2020), as we celebrate Black History month. I’d like to celebrate how the spirit of “Columbia” is one that emanated from the life of Phillis Wheatley, and how this same spirit of Columbia is one that resonates within the e pluribus unum we all share.
Phillis Wheatley was an enslaved woman from West Africa who likely came to New England during the 1770s. It is Phillis Wheatley who gave us our first known poetical use of the word “Columbia.” As a member of the Wheatley household in Boston, Phillis was taught to read and write by Mrs. Susanna Wheatley, who recognized that she was gifted and educated her for the larger world. To this end, Phillis far surpassed Mrs. Wheatley’s abilities, and as a patriot she sometimes wrote poems championing the revolutionary cause. One of her poems made its way in a letter to General Washington, who was so pleased by it that he arranged for a meeting with Phillis. Interestingly enough, contained in Phillis’ poem to Washington was that one word that would shape an image of our nation – the first American mention of the name of the goddess Columbia.
Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of the night!
And while use of the word “Columbia” looks to have predated the life of Phillis Wheatley, it was Phillis who first gave life and cause to the goddess’s good name. (This word for our new country first appeared in England in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1738.) Phillis’s invocation of the word as the goddess’s name helped shape our American spirit. I think it’s safe to say that we owe Phillis a debt of gratitude for bringing the meaning of “our Columbia” home, and for providing us an image of a more benevolent America – one we often desperately need, and one distinct from our lovable but sometimes irascible Uncle Sam.
So I hope that Skip Gates will forgive me in my ignorance as I sing out a bit about Phillis Wheatley today, and celebrate her life during this Black History month for 2020. Her contribution of Columbia represents a beautiful and radiant aspect of what can often be the tarnished guiding light of our American spirit. A contribution that an old white guy flower child in California is happy to have finally learned about … and one he will not soon forget.
 Per the Library of Congress at: https: //www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200000004/ “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” is credited to David T. Shaw and received an American patent in 1843.
 Frank Grizzard, George Washington: A Biographical Companion (Santa Barbara, Calif., 2002), 349.
 Phillis Wheatley, “To his Excellency General Washington” (1775), a poem.
 As per poetryfoundation.org/poets/Phillis-Wheatley.
11 thoughts on “O Columbia!”
From what I remember Declaration signer Francis Hopkinson was very famous for one song that is still song to the state
While my mother was listening to Frank in the kitchen, my ol’ Navy dad was listening to patriotic songs (and marches) in the living room. Thanks for the memory and the connection to Phyliss Wheatley. Three cheers for the red, white and blue.
Phyllis Wheatley is mentioned in this article:
Interesting, too, that Mrs. Wheatley probably gave the woman her own last name as a symbol of her ownership, and as a first name, Phyllis, a symbol of female servitude, based on “neat handed Phillis”, a table maid in Milton’s 1632 poem L ‘Allegro.
Wonderful connection to Phillis Wheatley. You might enjoy David Hackett Fischer’s Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideals. In his chapter, “The Many Faces of Miss Liberty,” he misses the connection to Wheatley. Your illustration is likely more Liberty than Columbia.
Michael, thank-you! I was able to check it out just now. You are so right. I see where I may have blurred the lines between Liberty and Columbia – two of my favorite ladies. It’s interesting to see what defines “both” of them, making them each distinct and at once nealy the same. Am I seeing that correctly? ( Yikes! – Somedays my old brain sure just doesn’t “click” over as fast as it used to.)
Thank you for this, Jeff!
Columbia, the Goddess of Liberty and America, her spirit conceptualized, personified and immortalized in the writings of an enslaved woman who became the Mother of Black literature in America.
Hear, hear, Miss Wheatley!
The Statue of Freedom which graces the top of the Capital Dome in Washington, D.C. (which was constructed with enslaved labor) was also modeled after Columbia.
Quite the food for thought every month of the year.
“Today, images of Columbia, or other similar divine feminine representations, adorn the entrances to all of the major federal government buildings in Washington, D.C.”
The Pagan Grove, Columbia: The Goddess of the United States, Posted on July 5, 2016 by Sam Shryock
Thanks Alane! For me it feels really cool to celebrate Miss Wheatley. It seems silly not to have been taught this amazing part of Columbia’s orgin in school. – How utterly fundamental Miss Wheatley is in learning about freedom, and in understanding the many different people who helped forge the birth of our nation.
Jeff, Well done as always! We so need these reminders of those who came ahead of us who laid a foundation for our lives now. We would not have the freedoms we have without them. Thank you for being willing to remind us that it is important to be thankful.
“Columbia” is almost forgotten today. I think it’s a great song, and sometimes find myself whistling it.
Another reference: Columbia Rediviva and the Lady Washington were the two ships commanded by Captain John Kendrick to the Pacific in 1788. He was awarded this commission as the result of his success as a privateer commanding the Fanny and the Count d’estaing in the eastern Atlantic during the Revolutionary War. At the court, in Versailles he was awarded 400,000 French Livres for capturing 2 prize British merchant vessels in 1778, and Benjamin Franklin wrote to the Continental Congress that France had at last decided to join the colonies against Great Britain.