Why Christopher Columbus was the perfect icon for a new nation looking for a hero Statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus, Ohio next to City Hall. (Derek Jensen (Tysto)/Library of Congress)
Why Christopher Columbus was the perfect icon for a new nation looking for a hero
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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 many statues and "Columbias" testify to how passionately most of the nation once embraced Columbus. There's also ample evidence that the whole affair began rather poorly. 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. It coincided with the 500th anniversary of the landing.
 
What changed?
 
American colonists needed a heroic symbol for their new, independent nation. Columbus, with some less-than-true narrative tweaks, fit the bill rather nicely. Cabot did not. This was despite the fact he was no Englishman, but an Italian like Columbus.
 
"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. There, 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. It graced everything from schoolbooks to learned societies like the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of the Arts and Sciences. It became 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. The book 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."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Columbus never set foot in what is now the United States, so why do we say that he “discovered America?”
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (11)
  • bmaria-dav
    10/10/2016 - 12:59 p.m.


    In response to "Why Christopher Columbus was the perfect icon for a new nation looking for a hero," I both agree and disagree that Christopher Columbus was a hero. One reason I agree is that he did discover America, so he should represent the nation he found. One reason that I disagree is, he enslaved and killed many natives that got to America first, so not many native American descendants approve of this . It says in the article "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." Also, the article stated the cult of Columbus rose in part because it "provided a past that bypassed England" he many suck remarkable discovery that it tops England's history. Even though he did discover America, but killed many people, I think
    we as Americans should celebrate the finding of our home country and the loss of many natives .

  • bmaria-dav
    10/10/2016 - 01:02 p.m.

    In response to "Why Christopher Columbus was the perfect icon for a new nation looking for a hero," I both agree and disagree that Christopher Columbus was a hero. One reason I agree is that he did discover America, so he should represent the nation he found. One reason that I disagree is, he enslaved and killed many natives that got to America first, so not many native American descendants approve of this . It says in the article "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." Also, the article stated the cult of Columbus rose in part because it "provided a past that bypassed England" he many suck remarkable discovery that it tops England's history. Even though he did discover America, but killed many people, I think
    we as Americans should celebrate the finding of our home country and the loss of many natives .

  • jackiek-orv
    10/11/2016 - 12:48 p.m.

    why do we honor Columbus he killed and enslaved many of the natives and wasn't even the first to find America and never set a foot in North America's mainland.

  • madelynf-ric
    10/11/2016 - 03:40 p.m.

    We say that Columbus "discovered America" because in the text it says "American colonists needed a heroic symbol for their new, independent nation. Columbus, with some less-than-true narrative tweaks, fit the bill rather nicely. Cabot did not.". Its talking about how we needed a leader and they thought even though he has some bad things about him he was ok as a leader, and John wouldn't even though he discovered America before Columbus. John Cabot was a Italian too like Columbus and was better than Christopher but he didn't reach the requirements like Columbus did. That's why we say he "discovered America".

  • jamariw-orv
    10/12/2016 - 01:04 p.m.

    i think this is interesting because i didn't know much of anything about Christopher Columbus except some saying he discovered america

  • smatthew-dav
    10/12/2016 - 09:21 p.m.

    In response to "Why Christopher Columbus was the perfect icon for a new nation," I agree that he is an appropriate icon to represent the United Sates. One reason I agree is that if he never set foot on the Americas, there would be a less civilized generation to come towards the future. Another reason is that he claimed most of the land he found for Spain such as Mexico. It says in the article he is said to be a bad icon to some to represent the Americas. A third reason is that there would be no type of structured government. Even though many people disagree, I think
    he is a great icon.

  • wlauren-dav
    10/20/2016 - 01:55 p.m.

    I think we say he discovered America causeColumbus as a historical personage, rather than as a symbol, wasn't really visible until Washington Irving's 1827 biography.so in a way maybe he's just a symbol

  • gmatthew-dav
    10/20/2016 - 10:03 p.m.

    the article I read was Why "Christopher Columbus was the perfect icon for a new nation looking for a hero". My opinion of the article is that columbus was in fact a hero, and here are my three textual evidence to support my evidence. Here is my first evidence "American colonists needed a heroic symbol for their new, independent nation Columbus fit that bill rather nicely" this was my first evidence which supported my opinion because many colonists considered them there hero he fits the mold of a hero to many people including present day people. My second evidence is that "What they like about Columbus is that at this time he's being portrayed as being almost an Enlightenment figure", He represented freedom which is just the hero the colonists needed meaning he almost turned his backs to the monarchy and sailed away to find and promote a new free land in a way. My third and final reason is "He was a terrible figure really, who somehow became an idealized symbol for a nation". Even though Columbus had his downfalls he became a "hero" because of his accomplishments of finding the new world which eventually led to the American colonies which is why many consider him a true "hero." In conclusion Columbus was a hero for many reasons but the main one was discovering the new world, which eventually led to this great nation: America.

  • bjoseph-dav
    10/20/2016 - 10:14 p.m.

    In this article "Why Christopher Columbus was the perfect icon for a new nation looking for a hero". In this article Christopher Columbus is the protagonist, because he is the one who discovered not the Americas but the indies. He is a round and the dynamic character. He is round and dynamic, because he changes trough him discovering the new world and how he interacts with the new people.

  • jfort-wim
    10/21/2016 - 11:44 a.m.

    We say that Columbus "discovered America" because like in the text it says, "American colonists needed a heroic symbol for their new, independent nation. Columbus, with some less-than-true narrative tweaks, fit the bill rather nicely." Columbus was a nice fit they thought but he did do some bad things, he enslaved a bunch of innocent natives. But either way right now Columbus is our so called "hero" even if most people now disagree.

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