Lady Liberty's Male Relations


While the image of Lady Freedom atop the Capitol has all but faded from popular conciousness, the Statue of Liberty has maintained, and even expanded, her presence within American culture. Cartoons such as the one of President Carter mentally undressing liberty, a recent television commercial for Oldsmobile in which liberty leaves her pedestal to inspect a new car, and other popular uses of liberty have allowed a symbol which grew out of classical western iconography to find a niche for itself in the "common" American's conceptualization of his nation.

As in this image of Uncle Sam and Columbia, male and female icons often worked within the same space. And although the male counterparts to these feminine symbols of lady liberty performed a similar role within society, they differed in three specific areas: where the symbols originated,what they represented, and how they functioned. Rather than expanding into popular thought from roots in western civilization, these male figures grew out of popular-- and often lower class--images. Unlike lady liberty, who symbolized a concept or idea, male figures stood for a specific individual--The Common American--or a specific institution--the American Government. Where Lady Freedom's clothing and accouterments were her prime means of conveying her message, these male figures relied on through their actions, mannerisms, and expressions. They were less symbols than characters, possessing personalities and expressing views which were considered by both americans and the rest of the world to be representative of a common american type.

As the various female icons of liberty can be focused to the two central figures of Lady Freedom and Lady Liberty, so can the male representations of America be brought to the two main figures. The first, a young New Englander named Brother Jonathan, appears in fictional works, songs, and political cartoons prior to the Civil War. Today we are much more familiar with the figure who replaced him, Uncle Sam.

Although it wasn't until 1950 that the U.S. Government formally adopted the symbol of Uncle Sam, the image was already an integral part of the average man's concept of the American Government. (Ketchum vii) The term originated during the War of 1812 and was associated with an actual man--Sam Wilson, a supplier and inspector of military rations. (38) Like the transition of the figure of Pocahantas from actual historical character to the more generalized icon of the Indian Princess, Uncle Sam soon became a generic representation of the government. During the Civil War Uncle Sam was once again associated with a specific individual--Abe Lincoln. As the image of Uncle Sam grew more and more to resemble that of Lincoln, so too was Lincoln often depicted in Sam's traditional clothing.

While our contemporary image of Uncle Sam may have aquired its features, beard, age, and height from Lincoln, the traditional stars and stripes attire harkens back to the earlier character of Brother Jonathan.

Often compared to the British figure of John Bull (on the right) and linked to the earlier figure of Yankee Doodle, Brother Jonathan (on the left) was considered--both at home and abroad--to represent the common man in america--or at least the common yankee. Associated with rural New England, Jonathan was characterized by a "deceptive simplicity" and distinctive sense of humor. (Morgan 22) Described as "cantankerously individualistic," it was precisely this specific set of characteristics which defined Jonathan as a symbol. (23) Unlike the female representations of liberty, Jonathan was not primarily a visual icon. In fact, it was first as a literary figure -- appearing in short stories and plays, as well as songs -- that Jonathan became widely recognized.

It was not until after the War of 1812 that Jonathan was seen in political cartoons. The period from 1812 to 1850 also marks a "flattening" both literally and figuratively in Jonathan's character. (63) In the second half of the ninteenth century Jonathan began to decline in another way and many of the figures which would once have been labled Brother Jonathan were beginning to be referred to as Uncle Sam. The first cartoon (left) identifies the figure as Brother Jonathan, while the second (below to the right) was labeled Uncle Sam.

What these images shared in common, however, was the agency of the male figure. The various icons of lady liberty were almost exclusively portrayed as passive and two-dimensional. Female figures stood solemnly unmoving as other figures (usually male) acted out. Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam, however, were frequently depicted as instrumental characters in any action, especially prior to 1850.

Jonathan's literary origins, his association with individuality and independence, and the cultural associations of masculinity all contributed in the creation of a figure which, while undoubtedly a close relation to lady liberty and her sisters, distinguished itself as a very different kind of American symbol.