Why Christopher Columbus was the perfect icon for a new nation looking for a hero
America's love affair with Christopher Columbus has been a rocky one. Some savor his day to celebrate Italian-American heritage. Others chafe at the impropriety of honoring a man who enslaved and killed thousands of native peoples. But our ubiquitous statues and "Columbias" testify to how passionately most of the nation once embraced Columbus. And if the object of such ardor seems inappropriate in the modern world, there's also ample evidence that the whole affair began rather badly. It was not with affection for Columbus himself, but with a disdain for England and the desire for a uniquely American hero.
As Columbia University historian Claudia Bushman says in "America Discovers Columbus: How an Italian Explorer Became an American Hero", the cult of Columbus rose in part because it "provided a past that bypassed England."
Native Americans called these shores home for perhaps 15,000 years before Columbus arrived. Norsemen reached North America centuries before Columbus, and even his contemporaries may have reached the new world first. In any event, Columbus never even set foot on the North American mainland, as John Cabot did in 1497.
So how did Columbus become the idealized symbol of New World discovery? It didn't happen right away. For several centuries after the voyages of discovery, Columbus, Cabot and other explorers were mostly bypassed by history.
"By the time Columbus dies, he's kind of a forgotten figure, as was John Cabot. Both of them were largely ignored within a decade or so of their deaths," says University of Bristol historian Evan Jones. "In the mid-1700s, they were mentioned in history books but as rather peripheral figures, not as heroes."
The 200th anniversary of Columbus's landing in 1692 featured neither words nor deeds commemorating the explorer. This is according to University of Notre Dame historian Thomas J. Schlereth's 1992 study in the Journal of American History, which coincided with the 500th anniversary of the landing.
What changed? American colonists needed a heroic symbol for their new, independent nation. Columbus, albeit with some ahistorical narrative tweaks, fit the bill rather nicely. Cabot did not, despite the fact he was no Englishman, but an Italian like Columbus himself.
"John Cabot is a much better person to have made much of," Bushman adds. But Cabot sailed under an inconvenient flag.
"Particularly after 1776, the Americans don't really want to associate themselves with things, including Cabot, that represent British claims to North America at a time when the United States is asserting its independence," Jones notes. "What they like about Columbus is that at this time he's being portrayed as being almost an Enlightenment figure. He represents freedom, a guy who had turned his back on the Old World and sailed in the name of a monarch and then been treated very badly by that monarch."
(Widespread accusations of colonial misgovernance led the Spanish crown to have Columbus arrested and returned to Spain in chains, where he served a short prison term. Though King Ferdinand freed him and later financed a fourth voyage, Columbus's prestige and power would never really recover.)
Cabot isn't forgotten everywhere. His Discovery Day is celebrated in Newfoundland and Labrador, where he set foot on mainland North America. But he quickly faded from U.S. history even as Columbus began a truly meteoric rise.
By 1777, the American poet Philip Freneau described his country as "Columbia, America as sometimes so called from Columbus, the first discoverer." There were others who advocated that the 13 states should adopt the name Columbia instead of the United States of America. They didn't, of course, but they did dub the nascent capital the "Territory of Columbia" in 1791.
"In early American textbooks from the 1700s, Columbus is the first chapter. Columbus starts American history," says Claudia Bushman. "There's nothing about the Indians."
In extreme cases, Bushman adds, Columbus has been employed to entirely obscure not only the Native American era but also the British colonies.
"There was a 20th century statue in Worcester, Massachusetts, with this great inscription detailing how wonderful it was that Columbus was 'inspired by the Lord to go forth, search for and find these United States of America.' So there you've just eliminated 300 years of history," she notes.
If the cult of Columbus was always more about an ideal than the man himself, that concept found full expression in the creation of Columbia. It is a feminine figure that came to represent the young New World nation.
The adjective Columbian was applied to stand for uniquely American virtues and graced everything from schoolbooks to learned societies like the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of the Arts and Sciences, a major influence on what later became the Smithsonian Institution. "Hail Columbia," written for George Washington's first inauguration and refitted with lyrics nine years later, was the nation's defacto national anthem until the close of the 19th century.
Where she did not come from, not really, was Christopher Columbus the man. Columbus as a historical personage, rather than as a symbol, wasn't really visible until Washington Irving's 1827 biography essentially re-imagined him, Bushman explains.
But for those like Bushman who delve into the history behind Columbus the person, neither the humanizing Irving portrayal nor the symbolic Columbus squares with the deeds of the man himself.
"It's a shock to go back and read the original documents and see that all the mean things they say about Columbus are true," Bushman says. "He was a terrible figure really, who somehow became an idealized symbol for a nation. It's simply remarkable how these things happen in history."