Log in / Register
Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

Columbus as an American Hero

But if an historical past and an historical memory are indeed essential ingredients for a viable nationalism, what was the new United States to do in 1776, or in 1789, or for that matter at almost any time before the Civil War? How does a country without a past of her own acquire one, or how does she provide a substitute for it? Where could such a nation find the stuff for patriotism, for sentiment, for pride, for memory, for collective character? Henry Steele Commager, “The Search for a Usable Past”

Christopher Columbus, it seems, was the historical figure most useful in the “search for a usable past” (cf. Commager) which had 18th-century Americans - colonial subjects of the British Crown seeking independence - look for meaningful beginnings. It is in the last decades of the 18th century that the specifically North American myth of Columbus comes into existence and in a very brief time span is firmly consolidated and embroidered. In the process of transmission from Spanish-language to English-language sources, William Robertson’s 1778 History of America is highly influential - this book “was available to more American colonists than was any earlier source” (Bushman, America 40) and devoted hundreds of pages to Columbus, who, according to Robertson, in his endeavors combined “the superiority of genius” with “ardent enthusiasm” (History Vol. II 104). Robertson follows de las Casas in elevating Columbus and in crediting him with the ‘discovery’ of a new world. Overall, the author blames the Spanish colonizers (aside from Columbus) for their violent excesses in Latin America, but unsurprisingly exempts the British colonial power exercising control in North America from any criticism.

In the context of the American anti-colonial movement directed against the British Crown shortly before, during, and particularly after the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the cultural work of American public intellectuals, writers and poets was to colonize the past in order to invent a meaningful beginning, and they did so by making the figure of Columbus part of their own colonial and postcolonial legacy. Many public figures and writers gathered around Columbus as a historical persona to affirm North American independence, and they represented him as a figure of national consensus exemplifying American national virtues and an American national character avant la lettre (cf. Herget, “Whitewashing” 3). In political culture, in public discussions of memorial practices and naming, in poetry, non-fiction, and the visual arts, Columbus figures as a patron and ancestor of those Americans who were demanding their independence from England and who later became citizens of the new republic.

On October 12, 1792, Jeremy Belknap (1744-1798), founder of the recently established Massachusetts Historical Society, delivered the Columbus Day address to a rapt audience in Boston. He lauds the “Admiral’s bold powers of mind” (Martin, “Literature” 21), suggesting that Columbus ‘knew’ about land masses to the West - “from the necessity of a counterpoise in the west, for the immense quantity of land which was known to be in the east” (Belknap, American Biography 19). According to this somewhat curious reasoning, Belknap holds that Columbus was fully aware of his ‘discovery’ and credits him with intelligence, skill, and vision, for which Americans owed him thanks and admiration. Therefore, Belknap suggests, America should have rightfully been named “Columbia.” He was not alone with this view. Many of his contemporaries lamented the ‘misnaming’ - of the hemisphere as well as the nation - as they considered Amerigo Vespucci’s role minor in comparison to Columbus’s achievements. The geographer and mathematician Martin Waldseemuller had introduced the name “America” for the new continent he mapped in his “Cosmo- graphiae Introductio” in 1507 after the wide circulation of Amerigo Vespucci’s mundus novus letter about his third journey to South America in 1501 and 1502, which had been published immediately in various languages. And the name stuck. In the late 18th century, most accepted this ‘misnaming’ as a fait accompli (cf. Martin, “Literature” 23). Yet, the historian Samuel Whelpley was among those who took a somewhat extreme position when he complained that naming the continent and the nation ‘America’ rather than ‘Columbia’ was “the greatest act of folly, caprice, cruelty, and injustice [...] that ever mankind were guilty of” (qtd. in ibid.). According to him, the new nation also should be strictly distinguished in name from the continent, and thus he concludes: “There are serious and urgent reasons why the United States should have a name [of its own]” (ibid.).

Amidst these discussions of naming the new nation, “Columbia” had been informally “adopted as an alternative to America on the eve of the American Revolution” (Bushman, America 41). It became a lyrical term for America envisioned as a female allegorical figure in revolutionary poetry. The African American poet Phillis Wheatley is supposedly the first to use it in her poem “To His Excellency General Washington” (1776):

Celestial Choir! enthron’d in realms of light,

Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.

While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,

She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.

See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,

And nations gaze at scenes before unknown! (577; my emphasis)

Wheatley follows her male contemporaries in pairing Columbus and George Washington - commander-in-chief of the revolutionary troops and first President of the United States (and another emergent national hero for more obvious reasons) - for patriotic purposes (cf. Bushman, America 54; Groseclose, “American Genesis” 14). This tandem of two foundational figures is forcefully evident in highly symbolic practices of naming in the early republic: the US capital is named “Washington,” whereas the government district, ceded by Virginia and Maryland in 1791, is named “District of Columbia.” George Washington’s farewell address is published in 1796 as Columbia’s Legacy (cf. Bushman, America 55). Many place names (cities, towns, and streets) as well as a rich memorial culture remind us of the heroism credited to Columbus (and Washington, of course) in the foundational phase of the USA.

Wheatley’s lyrical reference is far from singular. Philip Freneau (17521832), who bore the title of the “poet of the American revolution” and who is perhaps the most remarkable 18th-century American writer, refers to Columbus in many of his patriotic verses, e.g. in “Discovery,” “The Rising Glory of America” (with Henry Brackenridge), and “The Pictures of Columbus.” Freneau, who belongs to the new American elite, champions Columbus as an unrecognized genius, as a brilliant navigator ahead of his time, as an individualist and an idealist, and as a figure of dissent who found “new worlds for thankless kings” (Freneau, “Pictures” 122). But Freneau also addresses the dark side of Spanish conquest. In his early poem “Discovery,” which he wrote in 1772, he criticizes the brutality of Spanish colonialism, which under the cloak of missionary work usurped the continent by using physical and epistemic violence:

How few have sailed on virtue’s nobler plan,

How few with motives worthy of a man! -

While through the deep-sea waves we saw them go

Where’er they found a man they made a foe [...]. (86)

Whereas Freneau singles out Pizarro as the villain of Spanish colonialism (cf. ibid.), Columbus is not explicitly mentioned in his critique of the Spanish empire. Like many others, the poet disconnects Columbus’s ‘discovery’ from Cortes’s and Pizarro’s conquests (cf. Bushman, America 48) and thinks Columbus is deserving mostly of praise, as his famous poem “The Rising Glory of America” evidences:

The Period famed when first Columbus touched These shores so long unknown - through various toils,

Famine, and death, the hero forced his way,

Through oceans pregnant with perpetual storms,

And climates hostile to adventurous man. (49)

In “The Pictures of Columbus,” Freneau finds Columbus imprisoned on false charges and disowned from his rightful claims. Freneau anticipates a compensation for this lack of recognition in the distant future:

My toils rewarded, and my woes repaid;

When empires rise where lonely forests grew,

Where Freedom shall her generous plans pursue. (122)

The newly formed US republic - we can infer - is a late recompense for Columbus’s suffering as a tragic hero in his own time.

Next to the poems of Freneau, Joel Barlow’s The Columbiad (1807), which is an expanded version of his The Vision of Columbus (1787), is another key text for tracing how Columbus and the narrative of ‘discovery’ were represented in North American poetry of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Its author was a statesman, political writer, and poet whose epic introduces a new word to the English language: Columbiad - echoing the Iliad, which recounts the fall of Troy. Barlow calls his work a “patriotic poem” (Columbiad 375); it celebrates Columbus as “one of the wisest and best among the benefactors of mankind,” whereas it condemns Cortes as “the perfidious butcher of its [America’s] ancient race” (ibid.). Its preface as well as its first lines echo the Greek source text:

I sing the Mariner who first unfurl’d

An eastern banner o’er the western world

And taught mankind where future empires lay

In these fair confines of descending day

Who swa’d a moment, with vicarious power

Iberia’s sceptre on the new found shore

Then saw the paths his virtuous steps had trod

Pursued by avarice and defiled with blood

The tribes he foster’d with paternal toil

Snatcht from his hand, and slaughter’d for their spoil

Slaves, kings, adventurers, envious of his name

Enjoy’d his labors and purloin’d his fame

And gave the Viceroy, from his high seat hurl’d

Chains for a crown, a prison for a world. (413-14)

Barlow acknowledges, as does Freneau, that things have gone awry after the ‘discovery’ because of the greed of the Spanish colonizers. Yet, with the republican future secured by US-American independence, Columbus’s legacy will be honored and cherished, Barlow writes. This perspective is offered to Columbus as a consolation (consolatio); in Barlow’s epic, as in Freneau’s “Pictures,” Columbus is imprisoned and awaiting his death when Hesper, the angel of the West, shows him in a dream the subsequent history of the Americas. Columbus is desperate when he sees the destruction of Mexico by Cortes, curses his ‘discovery,’ and begs God for forgiveness. Only at the end of his dream does the angel make him see North America, a hopeful vision, to brighten his mood:

A happier hemisphere invites thy view [...] there Europe’s better sons their seats shall trace and change of government improve the race. (427)

Columbus then looks with paternal contentment on his North American descendants. He can now rest assured that in spite of the years of agony and suffering (both of the peoples of the Americas and his own), his ‘discovery’ has been meaningful and a blessing for humanity. The United States of America are to prove this and are an embodiment of Barlow’s “idea of progress” (Pearce, Continuity 65). Barlow turns to classical antiquity in order to integrate Columbus and the history of the USA into the master narrative of Western civilization; Barlow’s translatio imperii anticipates the greatness of the new US nation with its republican ideals. He, like Freneau, writes in the neoclassical mode of his literary period, often “forc[ing] his new world into archaic literary dress” (Elliott, Revolutionary Writers 124), yet his coinage of terms such as ‘Colum- biad’ shows how he wrestles with the limitations of conventional language to adequately describe the history of America: we note “the strange and awkward neologisms by which the language of the poem is disfigured,” writes scholar Samuel Kettell in 1829 (“Joel Barlow” 11). As Helmbrecht Breinig and Susanne Opfermann suggest, the neologisms in Barlow’s work indicate how early American literature is creating an artistic language for a new political entity and national culture (cf. “Die Literatur” 43; cf. also Pearce, Continuity 67).

The historians Belknap and Whelpley and the poets Freneau, Barlow, and Wheatley are only a few examples of the larger phenomenon of Columbus worship. Why him? And what are the reasons and rhetorical strategies used to appropriate Columbus as an American hero?

First of all, Columbus was a convenient historical figure for the simple reason that he was not British and thus not implicated in British colonialism; the notion of Columbus as a Founding Father establishes a non-English patrimony for the United States (cf. Groseclose, “American Genesis” 12) at the height of the conflict between the colonial power and its colonies. Second, the writers of the American revolutionary era sympathized with Columbus’s dependency on monarchical good will and clearly cast him as an anti-monarchical, almost revolutionary figure; they established a somewhat skewed analogy between Columbus’s suffering under the yoke of greedy monarchs who did not appreciate his genius and the fate of North American colonists under the rule of George III. The events of the age of ‘discovery’ are cast in a typological manner and become symbolic of the revolutionary period (cf. Herget, “Whitewashing” 3-5). Third, Columbus’s quest for a “passage to India” (Smith, Virgin Land 20) can be seen as prefiguring American westward expansion - with the aim to found “a mighty nation reaching from coast to coast” (Bushman, America 49). Columbus is a “symbol of ongoing expansion” and “of expansive destiny” (Martin, “Literature” 20). From the turn of the century onward, Columbus’s “daring, perseverance, and intrepidity were championed as necessary ingredients to the transcontinental endeavour” and he “became the very embodiment of an American pathfinder” (Groseclose, “American Genesis” 14). Fourth, it is argued that Columbus’s willpower and stamina in the face of sheer insurmountable obstacles embodied the highest degree of individualism - a core American virtue in early discourses of the republic - which “makes Columbus an American by temperament” (Martin, “Literature” 22). Fifth, the sense of providence that surrounds Columbus in historical sources can be attributed to both religious as well as secular designs. In the North American invention of tradition, he becomes part of “the negotiation of an uncharted intellectual and artistic path from a dominant religious vision of America to a new nationalist ideology” (Elliott, Revolutionary Writers 17) in the age of enlightenment, in which American writers could envision Columbus “[w]ith all the moral fervor of eighteenth-century American Calvinism behind them and the expanse of an open cultural horizon before them” (ibid. 11). Thus, the glorification of Columbus concurs with the first phase of the formation of an American civil religion.

The ‘Americanization’ of Columbus in the revolutionary period continued into the 19th century. Washington Irving’s comprehensive biography of Columbus as well as George Bancroft’s History of the United States are two of the most prominent examples signifying this trend. Washington Irving, one of America’s first writers of short stories and its first canonized as well as internationally popular writer, is considered by Shreve still to be “one of the first true Columbus scholars” (“Christopher Columbus” 704). His voluminous Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, written in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain on the basis of archival manuscripts, embraces the historical figure as a bridge-builder between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ world:

It is the object of the following work, to relate the deeds and fortunes of the mariner who first had the judgment to divine, and the intrepidity to brave the mysteries of this perilous deep; and who, by his hardy genius, his inflexible constancy, and his heroic courage, brought the ends of the earth into communication with each other. The narrative of his troubled life is the link which connects the history of the old world with that of the new. (Irving, Life 10)

The historian George Bancroft indicates with his choice of title - History of the United States of America, from the Discovery of the American Continent - that he includes the narrative of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ in US-American national history and, beyond that, dwells on this first period because “it contains the germ of our institutions” (6):

Imagination had conceived the idea, that vast inhabited regions lay unexplored in the west; and poets had declared, that empires beyond the ocean would one day be revealed to the daring navigator. But Columbus deserves the undivided glory of having realized that belief. During his lifetime he met with no adequate recompense. The self-love of the Spanish monarch was offended at receiving from a foreigner in his employ benefits too vast for requital; and the contemporaries of the great navigator persecuted that merit which they could not adequately reward. Nor had posterity been mindful to gather into a finished picture the memorials of his career, till the genius of Irving, with candor, liberality, and original research, made a record of his eventful life, and in mild but enduring colors sketched his sombre inflexibility of purpose, his deep religious enthusiasm, and the disinterested magnanimity of his character. (6-7)

A portrayal could hardly be more laudatory, and Irving and Bancroft are only two among many praising voices. As Matthew Dennis points out in his overview, “[w]ithin fifty years of the American Revolution, versions of Columbus’s name graced the titles of some sixteen periodicals, eighteen books, and a half dozen scholarly societies” (“Reinventing” 128).

Illustration 3: Neo-Classicist Depiction of Columbus’s Landing

John Vanderlyn, Landing of Columbus at the Island of Guanahani, West Indies (1846).

Columbus also quickly advanced to become an American icon in visual culture, and his landing in the Americas became a powerful “image of American genesis” (cf. Groseclose). The two most representative examples of early American paintings that depict Columbus’s arrival in the Americas are David Edwin’s depiction of Columbus in The Landing of Christopher Columbus (1800), which is uncannily similar to Charles Willson Peale’s 1779 portrayal of George Washington in his George Washington at Princeton (cf. ibid. 14), and John Vander- lyn’s painting The Landing of Columbus at the Island of Guanahani, West Indies

(1846), displayed in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington D.C.; Vanderlyn hierarchizes the ‘discoverer’ and his objects of ‘discovery’ (dressed versus naked, proud and upright versus timid and huddled, Christians versus non-Christians) and culturally translates the Caribbean setting into a more unspecified, possibly North American one in a transposition that we are already familiar with: the lone tree in the painting “is not a palm but instead looks very much like a specimen that might grow in a temperate climate such as one finds in the United States” (ibid. 16).

In sum, the public discourse commemorating Columbus’s ‘discovery’ - the poetry by Philip Freneau and Joel Barlow, Washington Irving’s biography, early historiography, as well as early American visual culture representing the landing of Columbus - evidences the elevation of Christopher Columbus and his ‘discovery’ to a national myth. The 1792 celebrations of the ‘discovery’s’ Tercentennial constituted a first climax in the glorification of this figure, after 1592 and 1692 had come and gone without much notice in either the ‘old’ or the ‘new’ world. Disregarding historical evidence, Christopher Columbus was elevated to a homo americanus; he was depicted as a good colonist (if a colonist at all), a scientist, scholar, and humanist, as a profoundly religious man, as an Enlightenment figure ahead of Enlightenment, and thus as a tragic figure. It may not always be easy or even feasible to distinguish the ‘historical Columbus’ from the ‘heroic Columbus,’ as Sale suggests we must (cf. Conquest of Paradise), yet in the case of US-American mythmaking in the late 18th century, the extreme divergence between historical evidence and narrative embellishment is quite apparent in the way that Columbus serves as a figure of empowerment regardless of the specificity of his historical, cultural, and religious context. The far-reaching consequences of this foundational narrative for all of the Americas and its treatment in historiography have been pointed out by historian James Loewen: “Columbus was so pivotal that, like Jesus, historians use him to divide history: the Americas before 1492 are called ‘pre-Columbian’” (Loewen, Lies 1).

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >
Business & Finance
Computer Science
Language & Literature
Political science