The popularity of and reverence for Christopher Columbus in the United States is more than a little puzzling.

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That an Italian mariner of bewilderingly little talent, sailing for the Spanish crown, who landed in the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispanola (today's Haiti / D.R.) became an American icon makes sense only in the context of American culture and society immediately after independence from Great Britain.

As new nations always do, the US experienced a fit of nationalism and a backlash against all things reminiscent of the now-hated British.
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For the first two centuries on the North American continent, we had played the role of loyal subjects to the Crown and accordingly most pre-Revolutionary places and institutions bear distinctly British (or less commonly other European nations') overtones. We have states, for example, named after William Penn, Queen Elizabeth (The Virgin Queen, hence Virginia), the British Channel Island of Jersey, King George II, the Duke of York, and the 3rd Baron De La Warr, not to mention two Carolinas named after Charles I and countless cities named after the likes of Lord Baltimore. Very suddenly in 1776 it became highly unfashionable, bordering on socially unacceptable, to show pride in any name that served as a reminder of the humiliating subjugation to a faraway island in Europe, and henceforth only good American names would suffice.

The problem was that America didn't really have any American history distinct from that of Britain upon which it could draw. There were the Native Americans – and indeed many Native American place names dot the map east of Ohio – and some admiration for the French who had aided us during the Revolution (Lafayette and King Louis both became popular naming inspirations). There were also living American icons, primarily Washington, but one could only name so many things after a man who was still living and around whom many feared the development of a cult of personality. So that is how Americans at the time seized upon an Italian mariner of bewilderingly little talent, sailing for the Spanish crown, as a national icon. Columbus, who had very rightly been completely ignored and forgotten in this country up to the American Revolution, suddenly became America's founding saint for the sole reason that he was untainted by any association with England.

First there was the transmutation and anglicizing of his Spanish name, Cristobal Colon, to something he was never actually called during his lifetime (the British also did this to Giovanni Caboto, "John Cabot"). Then the fact that he did not land in any part of what was actually the United States was swept under the rug, deeming it sufficient that he had landed in "The Americas." Finally, that Columbus was a poor mariner who insisted to his death that he had landed in Asia was deemed historically irrelevant. And then we started naming things after him with a vengeance.

From 1776 until about 1800, nearly everything of consequence requiring a name in the new United States was dedicated to Columbus. The classically British-sounding King's College in New York became Columbia University (1784). The region of the American Northwest explored beginning in 1793 was called Columbia (which lives on today in the part that was retained by Britain after a treaty: British Columbia).

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The Ohio Territory had its future capital, Columbus, established in 1797. South Carolina renamed its capital Columbia in 1786. The District of Columbia was chosen as the site of the future national capital (1790) with the Residence Act. A march written for George Washington's inauguration in 1789 became "Hail Columbia", America's national anthem until it was replaced with the Star-Spangled Banner in 1931.

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Counties, towns, bodies of water, and other geographic features almost too numerous to count were similarly given some version of Senor Colon's non-name as were scores of Columbian societies and institutions, one of which eventually became the Smithsonian Institute (that story will have to wait for another day).

Half of success in life is showing up. And that's how Columbus became indelibly stamped into the fabric of the United States: by not being British at a time in which lots of new things needed names.

32 thoughts on “NPF: HAIL COLUMBIA”

  • He's really the perfect American – ambitious, single-minded, uninterested in the details and famous for all the wrong reasons.

  • The Channel Island of Jersey (technically not part of the UK, instead part of the Duchy of Normandy held by the British crown) has a less famous neighbouring island known as Guernsey. There is no New Guernsey because Guernsey sided with Parliament against King Charles I in the British Civil War in the 1640s. When the monarchy was restored under Charles II, he gave his loyal ally the Governor of Jersey lands in the New World which became New Jersey, while Guernsey languished in obscurity.

  • Ed, this is not quite right. You're forgetting about all the Greek/Roman place names in upstate NY (probably elsewhere too, but that's just what I'm familiar with). Now those may have their own problems, but they aren't connected to Columbus.

  • Columbus actually gets an unfairly bad rap, because actually nah I'm just fucking with you, he was awful. And while the killing of the native people he came across is justly condemned, it's also worth noting that he's basically the first European to show up here and say, "Hey, you know what makes a whole lot of cultural and economic sense? Slavery!"

    Which goes pretty far to explaining why the early U.S. took him on as their idol (instead of, oh, I don't know, Amerigo Vespucci, who exploded the delusion that this was Asia, and actually named the continent)–thanks to Columbus, slave owners like Jefferson could characterize themselves as reluctant inheritors of a troubling system (and one handed to them by an Italian, no less), rather than, you know, what they actually were. (That'd be "torturers, rapists and murderers.")

  • Assistant Professor says:

    I think my favorite thing about Columbus is that he was literally a cranks. "Hey, all empirically tested geographic measurements showing us the size of the earth are wrong. I've done my own math, and it turns out I'm right and can totally make a pile of money off of it!"

    Yeah, kind of a good icon for America…

  • I think Catholicism has something to do with it too, or at least his staying power despite the fact that we now know he wasn't all he's cracked up to be. As far as I can tell, to this day he is still at least partially revered within the church for doing the Lord's good work (being a genocidal maniac not withstanding) and 22% of the US identify as Catholic. So you have a pretty strong slice of America willing to go to bat for him.

  • There was also the impact of Italian immigration in the later XIXth/early XXth century. Colon was the only Italian 'American' hero in the canon. The Knights of Columbus were the heavy hitters behind There Goes the Neighborhood Day becoming a Federal holiday under FDR. Making Italian Americans feel more American during the '30s was, in retrospect, an excellent idea.

    Fun fact – the K of C were created explicitly to give American Catholic men a society of their own, seeing as the Masons were forbidden. That reminds me – I should go down to the diocesan office and request documentary proof of my excommunication. They certainly have me still on the rolls.

  • Who are you to say that ANYONE has "bewilderingly little talent"???? Like, do you live in the same universe as the rest of us? You just get off on your own impression that you are humorous, reinforced by wasting your days posting drivel 24/7 to myriad others who are neither individuals nor talented. Like, wow, homeboy. How can you look at yourself in the mirror with even a shred of self-respect, let alone operate on the pathetic assumption that you have a right to criticize anyone of historical note for any reason? Keep on trying to not give up!

  • OK. Surprised you didn't mention Amerigo Vespucci. You know, the guy they named the Americas after. Also a motor scooter. Maybe. Making shit up.

    Um, but yeah, Cristobal Colon, that guy. Lotsa places and things named after him in Latin America. For some reason I wasn't too popular in those parts for going on about what a prick the guy was.

    Speaking of which, I think it was Hemingway who told Fitzgerald that if you look at your dick sideways in a mirror it looks longer, or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, that's a piece of advice for Greenberg who undoubtedly has issues in that department.

  • "Finally, that Columbus was a poor mariner who insisted to his death that he had landed in Asia was deemed historically irrelevant. "

    Except that you're entirely wrong about that. During his third voyage (1498-1500), he became the first European to see the mouth of the Orinoco River. Since there was too much water flowing out of it for it to have originated on an island, he realized he had discovered a previously unknown (to Europeans) continent.

    In fact, Columbus changed his coat of arms to reflect this "new" continent.

    [Source: Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen.]

  • Yeah, Hoyt may be right so I retract previous comment.

    Wanted to say something else anyway.

    When I was a young Turk cutting my teeth in the culinary world my sensei showed me how to flip a saute pan filled with sesame seeds without spilling (hint, it's not in the wrist) and I said upon his demonstration something like, "Oh, that's easy, anyone can do it."

    He responded, "You know about Columbus and the egg?" And he told me.

    Colon attended a royal dinner party upon return and was told by a fellow guest that his "discoveries" meant nothing, that "anyone could do it."

    Cristobal plucked an egg from a tray, examined it, and said, "You know how to make an egg stand on end?" Drunken antics followed but no one at the banquet succeeded in making the egg stand.

    I was told to think about it. Got stymied. Some hours later my teacher passed by my work station and hit an egg on the cutting board and left it there cracked and upright. Said, "It's easy, isn't it? Anyone can do it."

    Of course Columbus did no such thing, but once upon a time the parable was standard lesson for Japanese school kids.

    Lesson stuck with me, honky that I am.

  • Who exactly made the decision to make Cristobal the patron saint of the U.S. ? Were there a group of men who met in a smoke filled room and decided what the national ideology would be?

  • There's also Jefferson's nomination of the dove (columbo) as our national bird.

    As for the risk of a cult of personality and possibly a royalist movement, you sure ain't kidding:

    What really makes Washington indispensable to American history is not his service as a war leader (Arnold or Wayne could have done that) or as the first President (Franklin or Jefferson could have done that), but because of the time that his soldiers were complaining about Congress being slow to appropriate money to pay them. Some of them proposed to march on Philadelphia, throw out Congress and make Washington king.

    Washington knew his own strengths, and probably felt he would make a good king. He loved receiving accolades, and could become furious if denied one he thought he had earned. He could simply have stayed in his quarters and pretended not to notice what was going on until they came to put a crown on his head, but instead he wrestled with his conscience and then came out to address his troops, begging them to give democracy a chance to get started.

    Now that's heroism.

  • It wasn't just about Columbus showing up, it was about where he showed up. Europeans had visited the western hemisphere before him, but Columbus was the one who led the voyage that established permanent contact. That was and still is important. He was a major historical figure. You cannot understand modern world history without knowing when and where he showed up.

    The United States at its creation was an experiment in a new form of government based in a newly colonized part of the world. Novus ordo seclorum. (I can't believe I googled that instead of pulling out a dollar bill.) Columbus played a critical part in opening that new world. He isn't only popular in the US either. Many countries in Latin America celebrate Dia de la Raza in honor of his critical role. They still call him Colon.

    I'm not at all puzzled by Columbus's popularity even today. The US is still an experiment in progress, and it was an experiment that started when Columbus joined the old world and new world. Our growing Hispanic population celebrates the origin of its mixed race and hybrid culture.

    Given the rapid technological advances in European sailing and navigation, it is likely that the two worlds would have been united without Columbus, but it was Columbus who showed up in the court of a newly united empire and proposed his voyage, and it was Columbus who led his team to the shores of a new world.

  • @Kaleberg:

    Aso for the "experiment in progress"; the POG would be washing out all of the lab equipment– 'cept they don't believe in science.

  • @Major Kong, No, I was unaware that Vespucci means wasp in Italian since I don't speak the language. Thanks.

    Anyway, an airline pilot who owns a 58 DeSoto has my complete confidence.

    Like your haiku, too.

  • Davis X. Machina says:

    That an Italian mariner of bewilderingly little talent….

    His talent as a mariner was about his only saving feature..

  • Advantages of a Spanish keyboard: "Señor" "Colón", to avoid mistaking him with the lower intestine. Maybe the whole continent should have been named Colombia; naming it America shows you how Vespuccio got the upper hand because he was a good cartographer and had better PR rather than poor Colón, an entrepreneuring leader who knew how to sell a project to a CEO and make it happen.

  • This morning I was traveling back from Cub Scout camp on I-80 in New Jersey, which is inexplicably named the "Christopher Columbus Highway". I told my 9-year-old son a condensed version of the post above, and then added a bit about Columbus' second renaissance a century later, when Italian-American immigrants made him their hero and gave him a national holiday.

    Then I explained how, in recent years, Columbus' reputation had fallen because people were pointing out how Columbus, and those who came after him, exploited and murdered many of the indigenous Americans. My son (who has some Native American ancestors on his mother's side, and also some Italian ancestors on my side), said, "This happened five hundred years ago and people are just now finding out about it? How idiotic can this country be?"

    Looks as though he's got a pretty good perspective to grow up with.

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