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 (81)
  • ethand-obr
    10/11/2016 - 02:46 p.m.

    Because the government is trying to keep it a secret so people won't get angry at the president. My personal response is that I think that Christopher Columbus is a very bad man. It says in the article that Christopher Columbus as a historical personage, not as a symbol. I wonder if Christopher Columbus was a prisoner that escaped from jail and acted like he was a good person. By 1777, the American poet Philip Freneau described his country as ''Colombia, America as sometimes so called from Columbus, the first discoverer. '' There were others who advocated that the 13 states should adopt the name Colombia instead of the United States and of America.

  • sydneyb1-ric
    10/11/2016 - 03:36 p.m.

    We say that Columbus "discovered America" because he sets a good figure. In a biography Columbus really didn't do anything to become a public figure, but he did. The description of Columbus seemed to have fit what they were looking for. Many people think that Columbus should've never became a public figure in world history.

  • emilyc1-ric
    10/11/2016 - 08:47 p.m.

    Columbus did not step a foot in what is now the United States. But Columbus did fit perfectly in the heroic symbol that the Americans needed. In the text it says " American colonist needed a heroic symbol for their new independent symbol". They choose to name their symbol to be Columbus. People believed that Columbus discovered " America" but Cabot discovered "America". But Cabot did not fit the heroic symbol. So people assume that Columbus discovered "America". But still Columbus never stepped a foot in The United States.

  • charliet-orv
    10/12/2016 - 11:40 a.m.

    He didn't, period.

  • joshs1-stu
    10/12/2016 - 01:09 p.m.

    how do they have proof about him never setting a foot on america Im not saying they're wrong im just sayin very interesting

  • kristinaj-ric
    10/12/2016 - 03:15 p.m.

    We say that Columbus discovered America because American colonists needed a heroic symbol for their new nation. Cabot, who actually set foot on America, didn't fit their needs while Columbus did. Cabot didn't reach their needs because the American colonists didn't want to associate themselves with things that represented British claims.The American colonists thought that Columbus they thought he represented freedom. " 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.".
    ""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."".

  • tarenr-ric
    10/12/2016 - 04:20 p.m.

    We say that he discovered america because people back then said we needed an important figure to show that people discovered new land where the said New World was. "American colonists needed a heroic symbol for their new, independent nation. Columbus, with some less-than-true narrative tweaks, fit the bill rather nicely." They also said John Cabot really set foot in the New World, where some people question if Christopher Columbus actually did or not. But people thought John Cabot represented ties to the British while America was trying to show it's independence, so they chose Columbus.

  • mayleeng-ric
    10/12/2016 - 06:12 p.m.

    We say he discovered America because back then like a long time ago...The history books back then didn't know that it wasn't Columbus who discovered America and no one actually cared about Columbus and Cabot till about a decade they died. It was actually Cabot who discovered America about in 1497. Columbus was trying to find India and he thought he landed in India but different parts of it. Were probably not still sure about our country's past...Probaby Columbus actually did discover America or maybe he didn't.

  • gavinp1-ric
    10/12/2016 - 06:46 p.m.

    We say Christopher Columbus discovered America because he was an idealized symbol for new world discovery. He was also the symbol for independent nation because he fit that title better than John Cabot did. We still believe in Christopher Columbus discovering America because he represents freedom.

  • emmam1-ric
    10/12/2016 - 08:45 p.m.

    I think they say that because the American colonists needed heroic symbol for the new independent nation. Columbus with some less than true narrative tweaks fit the bill rather nicely. This was despite he was no Englishman He was Italian like Columbus. So that is why I think they say he discovered America.

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