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, too.  And they did it 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. John Cabot did, in 1497.
 
So how did Columbus become the idealized symbol of New World discovery? It didn't happen right away. Columbus, Cabot and other explorers were mostly bypassed by history for several centuries after their voyages of discovery.
 
"By the time Columbus dies, he's kind of a forgotten figure. John Cabot was as well. 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. He was 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. (He is) 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. 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.
 
"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 obscure the Native American era. And sometimes, he is used to obscure the British colonies.
 
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. It came to represent the young New World nation.
 
The adjective Columbian was applied to stand for uniquely American virtues. It graced everything. It was found in schoolbooks and 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" was written for George Washington's first inauguration and refitted with lyrics nine years later. It 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 neither the humanizing Irving portrayal nor the symbolic Columbus agrees 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 (76)
  • tylers531-stu
    10/10/2016 - 08:10 a.m.

    i think that is is good to learn about crstalfor clubis because he did some good things for the world.

  • bryced-stu
    10/10/2016 - 12:50 p.m.

    chrisphter was the first one to find the untied states.

  • johnathanj-stu
    10/10/2016 - 12:52 p.m.

    i think every one should thank him for discovering America techlecley.

    • matthewd2-har
      10/24/2016 - 03:35 p.m.

      Why should we thank a man that never "Technically" found America?

  • grantd-stu
    10/10/2016 - 12:57 p.m.

    That is a question of my own why would we say to this day that Cristopher Coloumbus found America when he never steped foot on America. He was in India.

  • samj-stu
    10/10/2016 - 12:59 p.m.

    This article is fun. I like the whole Columbus adventure thing we saw a video about it in social studies but nothing much.

  • bmaria-dav
    10/10/2016 - 01:00 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 .

  • bennye-stu
    10/10/2016 - 01:02 p.m.

    Im surised everyone remembers Columbus when he never stepped on what is know The United States Of America.Though Cabot set foot on north america and is mostly forgotten everywhere.

  • myram-obr
    10/10/2016 - 01:45 p.m.

    Well, it does seem strange that Christopher Columbus is celebrated in the United States, even though he did not actually set foot on this part of the continent. The people of the United States of America are probably taught that Christopher Columbus was the man to discover America because he was one of the first explorers to step foot on America, although ther were people living there a long while before him. The question is really, did Christopher Columbus want people to know that he and his crew killed many of the native people? Christopher Columbus was a liar and was not a good person. He was a murderer, in other words, a killer. I think that we should not celebrate Christopher Columbus at all because he does not deserve to be celebrated.

  • allim-stu
    10/11/2016 - 07:58 a.m.

    i think he discovered America because he fell something in i the heart

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