Early depictions of America as a woman appeared well before the 1776 Revolutionary War. On 16th century maps, ceramics, prints, sculptures, and paintings, America was depicted as a fierce bare-breasted Indian queen often adorned in feathers and riding atop an armadillo. Gradually, as the British American colonies began to flourish, the female image of America evolved into a graceful Indian princess occasionally accompanied by a fearsome rattlesnake or alligator. Eventually some came to identify the Indian princess as the unruly daughter of Britannia, the symbol of Great Britain.
Krummelsches Haus, built in 1674, Wernigerode, Germany. Here a female America rides a crocodile
The symbols of the good virtues of faith, truth, and liberty had been presented as women in the 1593 edition of Cesare Ripa's Iconography. Faith was a helmeted, classical woman dressed in white holding both the Old and New Testaments. She also held a raised flaming heart-shaped candle illuminating the power of faith over ignorance and superstition. Truth stood with one foot on the globe as one hand held a palm branch and the other reached to touch the sun and its rays. Liberty was clothed in a robe wearing a radiating crown whose rays reached out to the then 7 known planets. Liberty often had the Phrygian cap symbolizing freed slaves with her.
Paul Revere's logotype for the 1774 Royal American Magazine, depicts America as an Indian figure offering a calumet (a Native American peace pipe) to the genius of Knowledge.
By 1774 in the British American colonies, tempers were flaring, and the Boston Port Act & Paul Revere's famous ride were simmering just over the horizon. Taxes on tea were an infuriating issue, especially to women. In 1773, Britain had exported 738,083 pounds of tea to the colonies. In 1774, the figure dropped to 69,830. Imports of tea fell from 206,312 pounds to 30,161 in New England; from 208,385 to 1,304 pounds in New York; and from 208,191 pounds to nothing in Pennsylvania.
1774 Paul Revere's The Able Doctor or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught. Royal American Magazine. June 1774.
In this engraving, Paul Revere (1735-1718) uses what appears to be an Indian woman to depict America being subjugated by British ministers, who are forcing her to drink vile tea for her own good. The engraving comes as close as it dare to depicting the rape of America. The image had evolved into a classical goddess often clothed in a toga and crowned with plumes or a tiera. She was now Columbia, Lady Liberty, or the Goddess of Liberty. More often, she was a combination of images. Here the lady portrayed as America is wearing a classic draped gown that has been violently torn away from her body.
Since the 1760s, the British American colonial painters & their subjects, who chose to adopt aspects of ancient looking costumes, were striving for a classic timelessness. Fine artists, thinkers, & artisans, such as Paul Revere, turned to what they understood to be the values of classical Greece & Rome, valuing order, harmony, virtue, balance, & tradition. Portrait painters John Singleton Copley & Henry Benbridge portrayed classical costumes on some of their clients before this depiction by Revere.
By 1772, Charles Willson Peale was painting virtuous mothers in classical gowns holding their innocent children. The props, costumes, and scenery of a portrait declared the values & the attributes by which the subject, and often the artist, wanted to be known.
In this depiction, wearing his wig & judicial costume Britain's Chief Justice William Murray--Lord Mansfield (1705-1793) holds classic lady America down; as English Prime Minister Frederick "Lord" North, (1732-1792) with the punitive Boston Port Act bulging out of his pocket, pours the vile tea down lady America's throat. A leacherous Lord Sandwich--John Montagu (1718-1792) peers under lady America's gown; as cocky John Stuart--Lord Bute (1713-1792) unsheaths his sword inscribed "Military Law."
The bystanders, Spain & France, are horrified & tempted, just tempted mind you, to come to the aid of the ravished American colonies. In the background, Revere depicts his beloved Boston's skyline with the label "cannonaded." A torn & shredded American petition of grievances is thrown to the ground.
1775 Paul Revere's America in Distress. Royal American Magazine. March, 1775.
Boston's Paul Revere once again draws America as an Indian woman clothed in a classical costume, with quiver of arrows, a bow, & a feather head dress resting beneath her near a petition declaring "Petition of all England. America against evil Physicians, corrupt Members, & wicked Councellors." Lord North procliams, She is mad and must be chained!" Behind Lord North lurks a worried Lord Bute, saying:"Secure her now, or it is all over with Us!" A vindictive Lord Mansfield declares, "She must lose more blood. Petitions are rebellious." A compliant Thomas Hutchinson, royal governor of Massachusetts, agrees, "Right, my Lord. Penalties of that kind seem best adapted."
This anonymous engraving from the beginning of the Revolutionary War depicts "The Female Combatants," an oppulent English woman in an enormous hairdo & stylish clothing, fighting America, a natural Indian woman. The pious, en vogue English woman declares, I'll force you to Obedience, you Rebellious Slut." Pure, definat America replies:Liberty, Liberty forever, Mother, while I exist." English printmakers & editorial writers had been attacking the outlandish excesses of British fashions of the period by the time Paul Revere chose this image.
1779 Minerva, or Civic Virtue, W.D. Cooper America Trampling on Oppression from History of North America, E. Newberry. London, 1789, frontispiece. Here the triumphant America holds the Liberty Cap -she is free- and the wiley snakes still stand guard.
This English frontispiece depicts a calmer, more controlled, classically dressed America during the middle of the American Revolution accompanied by medals of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.
1782 America Triumphant and Britannia in Distress, Frontispiece, Weatherwise's Town and Country Almanack.
Below this image an Explanation reads:
I. America sitting on that quarter of the globe with the Flag of the United States displayed over her head; holding in one hand the Olive branch, inviting the ships of all nations to partake of her commerce; and in the other hand supporting the Cap of Liberty.
II. Fame proclaiming the joyful news to all the world.
III. Britannia weeping at the loss of the trade of America, attended with an evil genius.
IV. The British flag struck, on her strong Fortresses.
V. French, Spanish, Dutch &c shipping in the harbours of America.
VI. A view of New York wherein is exhibited the Trator Arnold, taken with remorse for selling his country and Judas like hanging himself.
Here lady America is represented by another classical Minerva figure, seated beneath a dead tree, with a shield of a snake, probably the fabled rattlesnake, ringed with another snake. The new American flag boasts 13 stars; and the new American lady is evolving into a calmer, more self-assured representation of the new nation. Soon she will be the depiction of the new nation, Lady Liberty.
Adrien Collaert II Personification of America. Once again, America is seated on an armadillo. 1765-1775
Thomas Colley The Reconciliation between Britannia and Her Daughter America London 1782
Africa-America, One of a series on the Four Continents. London T. Hinton 1808 Here America is once again accompanied by that ever-threatening rattlesnake.