Columbia’s Bloody Dream
In the struggle for the acceptance of Pagans paths as respectable and legitimate religions in the eyes of American public opinion, some have adopted a patron goddess — Columbia, a personification of the United States as a woman in partial battle armor draped in the American flag, a symbol popular in the nineteenth century.
Those who invoke her frequently acknowledge the “problematic past” of a goddess named after Christopher Columbus, the invader who launched five centuries of genocide across the Americas. But they suggest that we can call on her to help us realize the nation’s potential, One group that chose her as the symbol for their campaign against those bent on creating a Christian theocracy, wrote:
Columbia represents the goal to which we are dedicated; she encourages us to protect what has been won and beckons us onward to expand freedoms, including religious liberty in a peaceful and pluralistic society. As we take steps in that journey, let us demonstrate that all acts of truth and justice are her rituals.”
and said that their goal was to “remind Americans that this country was built on religious freedom.”
This suggests a narrative in which well intentioned people, blind to their bigotry, founded a country on ideals of freedom which have been progressively extended to broader and broader categories of people. Its a compelling idea, one that has long been popular among liberal supporters of systemic reform from the women’s suffrage movement to the Civil Rights movement to the marriage equality movement. If you believe that narrative, it makes sense to appeal to the egregore created by the nation’s founders to guide the continued expansion of freedom.
But what if that narrative isn’t true? What if the “Founding Fathers” and the egegore they conjured were not benevolent, if somewhat benighted, advocates of freedom, but rather deliberate architects of the very system whose injustices we are resisting? What then is the nature of this figure being invoked? To understand this we need to look at the origins of the United States.
The Jewish mystic Martin Buber said that “One cannot in the nature of things expect a little tree that has been shaped into a club to put out leaves.” The society which Columbia represents is a club wielded to protect the power of the few. It is direct heir to the mission of Columbus.
Columbus was not only responsible for the beginning of the genocide against the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. The looting of the Americas that Columbus set in motion would trigger massive waves of violence felt around the world.
The influx of silver and gold into Spain set off a trend of speculative investments in an early form of treasury notes by the wealthy in the country’s proto-capitalist economy, leading to massive inflation. As Spain’s economy struggled, American silver and gold made their way into English, Dutch, and Belgian banks.
In England, the new wealth created a new wealthy class who demanded access to land. One response to this demand was the enclosures, which privatized communal farm land, destroyed rural cultures and their surviving pagan and animist practices, and drove rural people to the cities where they became the workforce which would drive the rise of capitalism. Another response was the granting of charters to wealthy men to establish “plantations” in North America. This system was based on the system of plantations the British set up in Ireland and Scotland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to control these occupied territories and displace Indigenous Celts from their lands.
Yes, some of these charters were granted to religious minorities. But with the notable exceptions of Roger Williams and William Penn, neither the founders of Britain’s American colonies nor the governments they established exhibited any real sense of pluralism. (In fact, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, we see the once persecuted “pilgrims” begin to persecute heretics and pursue an active campaign of genocide against Indigenous people that included the first documented use of germ warfare in the first century of the colony’s existence.)
In order to manage its colonies, and extend its influence to Africa and South Asia, the British Crown also chartered the forerunners of today’s global corporations — The Hudson’s Bay Company, The British East India Company, and the Royal Africa Company. The last played the role of supplying slaves to British plantations in the Carribean and in the American southeast after too many Indigenous people had been wiped out to supply a workforce.
In the late eighteenth century, a dispute broke out between the colonists and the British Crown over who should bear the cost of the war Britain had waged against the French and a group of First Nations that had made a strategic alliance with the French. The fight over taxation reached a boiling point. And rhetoric of liberty and home rule was used to recruit farmers and artisans to join the cause of the colonial aristocracy. (Sound familiar) A war for independence was successfully waged, and in its wake the colonies formed a series of governments whose earliest acts involved the crushing of a series of uprisings started by rural war veterans.
The aristocracy created a system in which only white men who owned property could vote. The choice would have been a deliberate one — the argument over whether all people had a right to vote or only property owners should have the vote had raged in England just a generation earlier. Later extensions of the franchise were gifts of that ruling class extended to those who were beginning to be economically important.
The civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights were the province of citizens, those considered fully human by the society, and served to further their ability to participate in the shaping of the society, and in the pursuit of wealth (or, “happiness,” if you prefer.) Its worth noting that the idea of individual liberties arises from the concept of the individual as an isolated economic unit that emerged with, and underlies, capitalism. Those rights were deliberately withheld from large classes of people. The model, after all, was an idealized vision of the Roman republic, which was, of course, imperial.
When it established its capital, the new government ordered a city to be built largely by slaves, with official buildings whose architecture was marked by classical Roman and Greek flourishes, and established a new capital district named for the feminine embodiment of their triumphant mission — Columbia.
George Washington’s first major foreign policy decision was to send aid to the French to help put down the slave rebellion in Haiti. This would form the basis of the guiding principle of U.S.. foreign policy for centuries to follow — the use of military, financial, and diplomatic resources to help wealthy elites maintain control in places that were supplying the United States with resources or were battling ideologies the U.S. feared would become popular among its most oppressed peoples (the leaders of slave rebellions were the nineteenth century’s version of the Communist threat of the twentieth century.) By the mid-nineteenth century, confronting U.S. efforts to stir political unrest throughout newly independent Latin American countries would lead Simón Bolívar to proclaim that “The United States seems destined by providence to plague America with misery in the name of Liberty.” Meanwhile, the campaign of genocide against Indigenous people started by the British was continued, and accelerated by a series of American presidents, and westward expansion was defined as the nation’s “manifest destiny.” In nineteenth century at, Columbia was depicted sternly, determinedly, and triumphantly driving Indigenous people into the sea while watching over settler’s wagon trains and stage coaches.
Columbia’s last widespread appearances occur in propaganda posters from the first World War — a war both British and American propagandists claimed was being waged for peace and freedom, while people fighting for their rights and dignity in the Irish freedom struggle and in the American labor movement were facing violent repression and a campaign of racist terror continued in the American south. And, in the U.S., many civil liberties were suspended, even for white men. Countless poor draftees and enlistees died or were traumatized or were permanently injured. And in the aftermath of that war, as in the aftermath of the war of independence, military veterans demanding their pay were met with armed repression. After that, Columbia fell out of fashion. Perhaps the nature of the vision she represented was made too clear by the brutality of the war whose emblem she had become.
The American Dream that Columbia represents has always been a bloody dream — one which promises wealth, leisure, and liberty to those fortunate enough to be included in it, while diverting attention away from the continual violence on which it depends. Access to the dream is extended to those who become economic subjects, and the possibility of becoming a full participant in the society is held out as a promise to those not yet included. Extension of access to that dream to the upper classes of previously excluded populations keeps alive the idea of progressively expanding freedom. It is true, Columbia’s hand can be seen in moments like the establishment of marriage equality. But that is not a purely benign presence — the expansion of the category of people allowed to make particular kinds of decisions about property has been expanded to include some Queer people, but in the process the lie has arisen that Queer liberation has been achieved, when, in reality, poor, disproportionately Black and Brown Queer people are suffering and dying from the ravages of physical and economic violence.
Also always expanding is the process of primitive accumulation which gave rise to capitalism and the ideas and society which Columbia represents. Capitalism’s growth requires new labor and new resources to provide its material base. This means the privatization of new resources and the conscription of new labor. Columbia’s hand can also be seen in the passage of “free trade” agreements, sold as instruments of “economic liberty,” which erode protections against the corporate plunder of poorer nations and aid in the conscription of rural people displaced from stolen lands into the sweatshop economy.
The embodiment of a nation and its principles can’t exist outside of history. Columbia can’t now become a force of liberation now when the events that gave rise to her conjuring were part and parcel of enabling and facilitating and legitimizing genocide, repression, and wars of expansion. Columbia is an egregore we should banish, not one we should summon.
Sean Donahue is a highly neurodivergent wild forest creature who defies the seelie/unseelie binary. He lives on traditional Klickitat territory in Trout Lake, WA and has an herbal practice in Portland and Beaverton, OR. He is an initiated priest of the BlackHeart line of the Feri Tradition of witchcraft, and carrier of the Green Wand.
Sean Donahue’s work has appeared in the first three issues of our journal, A Beautiful Resistance. Find out how to order it–or any of our other books-–here.