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Columbia (American Minerva) and the Fasces in Harper’s Weekly “Reconstruction” for Equal Rights (1868)


“Reconstruction” by German-born American political cartoonist, Thomas Nast illustrates the Southern states being brought back into order with the North under the ancient symbol of collective power, authority and fraternity, the fasces and the nation’s motto, E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”).

The symbolism of Columbia (America) depicted in Thomas Nast’s cartoon illustrations can be seen in this Harper’s Weekly cover clutching the fasces (our Union), a bundle of sticks embroidered by a banner reading Union, Fasces, and E pluribus.

Thomas Nast is credited with creating the most enduring American symbols, such as the Republican elephant and the Democrat donkey. The American founders idolized ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome, thereby continuing to immortalize the pantheon of gods and goddesses as the Greeks and other ancients did. Symbols are the keys to every faith, as it was with our long vanished ancestors and fore parents beyond this northern continent.

During the early age of the American Empire in the nineteenth-century, foreign conflicts consequently led to an exodus of refugees to the United States, during the periods of war with Mexico and expansions into Western territories, along with the war in Spain and new colonies in the Pacific and the Caribbeans won over.

The atrocities of the Civil War haunted the American mind, and sowed bitterness and division between the North and Southern states. The American public by 1868 had begun to observe General John A. Logan’s declaration of May 30th as a day of remembrance for the dead from the Union War, and later extended to honoring the confederates, who died.

Thomas Nast illustrated the honoring of men and women decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. The writers of Harper’s Weekly were quite averse to War, sharing this sentiment with the American public. When the nation continued expanding West, atrocious conflicts arose between the new settlers and indigenous, or native populations, and the Harper’s Weekly documented it. In one illustration, e.g., we see the first organized colony of Germans to purchase land in Colorado and establish the town of Colfax. Agricultural settlements were founded to produce food for the settlers, and establish business and commerce.

Harper Weekly reported from the front lines of that war, and this treasured Harper’s Weekly illustration cover by Thomas Nast in Vol. XII. No. 607, (Saturday, August 15, 1868), displays the Fasces for the American Union, Justice, and Equal Rights Advocacy.




Reads the plaque on the wall behind Columbia, a classically draped female figure, whom Nast favored as a symbol to personify the United States. Columbia is understood to be an outgrowth of Minerva (or Athena), the Etruscan, Roman, and Greek goddess of war.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth-century, cartoonists personified their nations with national female and male representations, and the female representations were typically fashioned as Greek or Roman goddesses. The first personification of America was created during the Revolutionary War in a poem by a recently-freed woman at the time, an African American slave named Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), who in this poem wrote:

Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales/For in their hopes, Columbia’s arm prevails.

PHILLIS WHEATLEY (POEM) To His Excellency General Washington, 1776.

The importance of this symbolism of Columbia (the American Minerva) and Nast’s cartoon imagery was highly influential, and rather expressed some sentiment at the time. Unfortunately, “…Nast’s racial attitudes — like those of many other Americans — were not without contradictions. And as Reconstruction-era corruption and violence spun out of control, he drew cartoons that criticized black legislators as strongly as earlier cartoons had championed black suffrage and lamented white supremacist violence” (Thomas Nast’s Political Cartoons, PBS).

Columbia is also illustrated arguing for Civil Rights for a wounded African American veteran in a Harper’s Weekly (August 5, 1865), or prepared to combat a ferocious Tammany Tiger, though vulnerable; or pictured alongside and with her sisters and relatives (or Principles) Justice and Lady Liberty, decked with a tiara, crown, or red Phyrgian cap, clenching a whip (lasso) or sword in hand. Although Lady Liberty of NYC and France became the popular representation of America after Columbia, Thomas Nast often called Columbia Lady Liberty emblazoned with US or NYC, when this was even before Bartholdi’s statue was erected. Thomas Nast actually used his wife’s face to inspire his illustration of Columbia.

In Thomas Nast’s cartoons, further concerning Columbia:

“She was not a Nast invention. Cartoonists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used male and female symbols to represent their nation’s government and principles. In the same tradition as Great Britain’s John Bull and Britannia, cartoonists like Nast employed the male figure of Uncle Sam to represent the United States government and the motherly, nurturing Columbia to embody the “motherland” to remind audiences of America’s values and democratic promise. Unlike their male counterparts, these national female representations were typically fashioned as Greek or Roman goddesses. Nast is sometimes erroneously credited with inventing Uncle Sam. He did not. Uncle Sam was an outgrowth of Brother Jonathan, the American version of John Bull. Nast can be credited with helping to make these images part of the visual vocabulary of his time, frequent ingredients in his commentary on hypocrisy and corruption. Well-versed in classical literature, Wheatley’s Columbia was “an invented goddess who lent a tinge of classical refinement to the nation building project” (Gruez 542-53).

Cartoon historian Donald Dewey suggests that Columbia was an outgrowth of Minerva, the Greek goddess of war. “Minerva morphed into Columbia during the Revolutionary War” when she replaced Britannia as a symbol on ship mastheads and various business enterprises (13). Columbia occasionally appears in British cartoon illustrations in the nineteenth century, where she continues as a classical goddess alongside her relatives Hibernia (Ireland) and Britannia (England). These women stand, cheer, weep, protect and champion their respective country’s highest values and most valiant patriots. They often appear in scenes of conflict to mediate or stand fearlessly as a barrier to danger or injustice. All appear in issues of Punch, England’s leading weekly illustrated magazine a magazine whose artists influenced Nast (Paine 28).

Columbia made her first appearance by Nast near the close of the Civil War on February 6, 1864. Columbia Decorating Grant a double page spread that honored the efforts of the Civil War’s Union General U.S. Grant. But it was Compromise with the South, released in the heat of Lincoln’s reelection bid that Nast’s biographer Albert Bigelow Paine wrote: “that stirred the Nation more than any picture hitherto published” (98). (…)

Columbia speaks for a country in mourning. Columbia assumes center stage under circumstances of deep emotion. Her face hidden, she nonetheless captures the empathy of a collected grief. Her whiteness and purity stand in stark contrast to the darkness engulfed by Lincoln’s coffin. The somber images of a Union Army and Navy soldier, flank the image, left and right respectively. Columbia is distraught, yet she is pure. She is surrounded by flickers of light and close to the glowing name of her hero, Lincoln.

When the Civil War concluded in favor of the Union, it fell to the Andrew Johnson administration to carry out the promises of Reconstruction and Emancipation of freed African American slaves.

And under this administration, Columbia would soon surface again, and this time she was not hiding her face.

Two images appeared side by side in the August 5, 1865, issue of Harper’s Weekly. They were titled “Pardon and Franchise.” The images, Paine writes, “struck firmly the most strident note of the Reconstruction discord.”

Columbia sits in a position of authority, deciding whether to pardon the leaders of the southern cause, confederates, and secessionists. She appears bored by their entreaties for a pardon. Columbia is not sold on their change of heart, she is not confident of their declaration of good intent. And why should she accord them the consideration and reapplication for membership in the Union, when these same men cannot extend the same equity to an African-American amputee Union veteran? (In Nast’s early career at Harper’s, his work was very sympathetic to African Americans. Later, this view changed after they had won the right to vote, and aligned with the Democratic Party, the party that originally had fought against abolition. Nast was disturbed by this turn of events and exasperated, began to draw African Americans in less-than-flattering caricatures).

Note the difference in Columbia’s posture. She rises to greet the African American. She shares the same stage, the same level as the beleaguered veteran. Her right hand touches the man’s soldier. Her other hand opens in his direction. Columbia bears no weapons because she does not fear this man. She stands on the marble landing and presents him as he makes his entry hobbling on an elaborate, oriental carpet.

Nast’s Columbia does not suffer fools lightly. She weighs all arguments, she advocates justice and fairness for all Americans, regardless of their race, creed, or station.

Columbia is often drawn strong and determined. According to John Adler, Nast used his wife Sarah as the model for Columbia’s face. But Columbia’s facial expressions and carriage could vary widely. When angry, Columbia was a force of nature. She stood erect and tall. Her facial features gently chiseled, with an almost masculine quality. Her nose was Romanesque, her eyes were usually fixed, her expression resolute, but like the country she represented, she could display a full range of emotions and temporary vulnerability which mirrored her nation’s pulse or sentiment. She would wear a variety of hats, tiaras or crowns, literally and figuratively.

Nast would sometimes refer to her as Lady Liberty, long before Bartholdi’s statue was erected.  Often she wore a tiara, emblazoned with US or NYC, depending on the focus of the cartoon’s issue.  The status of her headgear is important, as it usually contains a message. In the case of the Tammany Tiger is Loose, (featured below) her tiara has fallen and broken. Columbia and her relatives Justice, Liberty etc. often hold a sword or a whip, but sometimes all she needs is a clenched hand to get her point across.

As Nast’s work for Harper’s Weekly moved from engraved illustrations to the wit, sarcasm and lampooning of his caricatures, Columbia often occupied an important place in Nast’s black and white panorama. But Nast wasn’t afraid to place her in everyday situations so that his readers could relate to her. Columbia is by turns seen as a housewife, cleaning up messes, or as a school teacher, dismayed by the state of public schools. She is often portrayed as weeping for the tragic turns her nation would delicately navigate.  For Nast, Columbia was a ballast of sanity and righteousness against the ridiculousness in his images. As Nast’s depictions and caricatures would increasingly favor the comic or ironic, his inclusion of Columbia would impart the seriousness of his message. Whenever Nast felt compelled to call out a wrong, he often chose to have Columbia by his side.

As a symbol, Columbia would lose favor to a new incarnation, Lady Liberty, influenced by the great copper statue designed by Frederic Bartholdi. In other instances, Columbia’s style and grace sometimes assumed the more specific role of Justice, Peace, Law or New York City. Whatever their name, their maternal, nurturing presence consistently delivered a message of hope and integrity- their inclusion always meant as a reminder to higher values, toleration, fairness and democratic principles of inclusion. Nast’s catalog of Columbia is impressive. He includes Columbia in many key situations. Consider the voice she represents. What crime, hypocrisy, injustice, unfairness is she commenting on?” The Tammany Tiger Loose is a rare exception that shows Columbia as a victim. The tiger, Nast symbol of Tweed’s ferocious power, cares little for Columbia. She is in his way. Tweed and the Tammany Ring watch with satisfaction as their instrument of power tears American values apart. In, “Let the good work (housecleaning) go on,” December 16, 1871, a domestic Columbia is a symbol of “every woman” at least a nineteenth-century version, prepares to clean America’s (or New York City’s ) house after the villains have left.”

With crime, hypocrisy, and injustice in our politics and high offices, just as there were in the early history of the U.S., the symbolism Columbia, or Minerva represents does not, nor can truly die.

America (Columbia) must not weep in sorrow, as she did under her old representations, but as she was depicted also, standing with her lasso or sword against the Loose Tammany Tiger.


  1. Reblogged this on Illustrating Chinese Exclusion and commented:

    Honored to be quoted and referenced in this article. Columbia, and symbols like her, continue to fascinate. America has always had its moments when her citizenry needed to be reminded of her values. Nast employed Columbia effectively. I am less confident her encore in the 21st century would , or could, make the sale .

    Liked by 1 person

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