Why Christopher Columbus Was the Perfect Icon for a New Nation Looking for a Hero

Columbus became Columbus in the American Revolution—when the United States sought out an origin story that didn’t involve the British

Columbus Plaza in Washington, D.C. © Catherine Karnow/Corbis

America's love affair with Christopher Columbus has been a rocky one. Some savor his day to celebrate Italian-American heritage, while 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—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 according to this intriguing map. 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 or deeds commemorating the explorer, 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.)

“Of course there was a resonance there at a time when Americans felt they'd been treated very badly by George III,” says Jones. “It's not as if people write diatribes against Cabot or discredited Cabot. They just kind of forgot about him.”

Cabot isn't forgotten everywhere. His Discovery Day is celebrated 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.

King's College, named under the rule of George III, was renamed Columbia in 1784. South Carolina announced Columbia as its state capital in 1786.

In 1788, the Society of Tammany or Columbian Order was founded—it later became the power broking machine of the Democratic Party in New York headed by 'Boss' Tweed. “It took as its patrons Tammany, the legendary Indian chief of the Delaware tribe, and Columbus himself, these two figures being thought of as archetypically American,” wrote John Larner in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, during the Columbus Quincentenary.

What was it about Columbus that endeared him to so many during this period? Larner asserted that few Americans of the time knew much about Columbus the man:

For most patriots, I would imagine, two things sufficed. The first was that he wasn't English. The second was that, as it was believed, he had been treated with ingratitude by an Old World monarchy. Among the toasts drunk at the Tammany celebration of the Tercentennial - toasts played a large part in these early commemorations - was one that asked: "May the deliverers of America never experience that ingratitude from their country which Columbus experienced from his king."

Columbus also provided a convenient way to forget about America's original inhabitants.

“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 the 1700s you had to have a different way of thinking about America. Some of these books even show pictures Columbus in colonial era clothing. People had a very shaky concept even of how many years had passed.” 

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—a feminine figure that came to represent the young New World nation.

This allegorical symbol appeared in newspapers, engravings, magazine titles, place and ship names, songs, and political cartoons of publications like Puck and Harper's Weekly. 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.

This female Columbia became so ubiquitous and enduring that many learned Americans no longer recognize the connection even when surrounded by examples of it.

“When I gave a seminar over the summer to a bunch of high-flying Fulbright students from the U.S., all of whom were history majors, none of them were even aware of the Columbus-Columbia connection,” Jones said. “They were fascinated by it, having grown up with 'Columbia' as a name and an icon but never really having thought about where she came from.”

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. 

“That's the first time he really appears, as far as I could tell. His remaking by Washington Irving really changes the whole way he's considered. It's a beautiful whitewash job.”

But for those like Bushman who delve into the history behind Columbus the person, neither the humanizing Irving portrayal nor the symbolic Columbus square 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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