Before the American Revolution, British colonists did not think of Christopher Columbus as having any direct historical relationship to the societies that had developed in North America. If you asked a British colonist who discovered America, they would probably answer John Cabot or Henry Hudson, in large part because they had sailed for England. During the 1690s, Samuel Sewall proved a rare exception when he insisted the New World — and especially North America — be more correctly called “Columbina” after Columbus rather than “America” after Amerigo Vespucci, who had “discovered” Brazil after Columbus’s initial voyages to the Caribbean.
The beginning of remembering Columbus in what would become the United States can be found in the first scattered uses of “Columbia” which emerged as a feminine personification of America in the 1760s. The enslaved African American poet Phillis Wheatley popularized the term, most notably in her 1775 poem “To His Excellency George Washington,” which she sent to the general and to which he replied. During the war and the years immediately following, the first generation of American poets widely adopted the use of this personification in “prospect poems.” In one example, “Ode on the Glory of Columbia,” Timothy Dwight began: “COLUMBIA, Columbia, to glory arise / The queen of the world, and the child of the skies!” These poems analogized Americans after the Revolution, who were embarking into unknown territory, to Columbus, a move that sought to assure them of the future greatness of the new republic.
But by the 1790s the conversation changed and Columbus became the “discoverer” of America. Why? Because after the war, Americans were actively looking to create a new shared national identity that would distinguish them culturally from the former mother country. One historian has described this process as “unbecoming British” and the memory of Columbus played an important role.
Taking advantage of the 300th anniversary of his voyage in 1792, cultural nationalists intent on creating a distinctly American culture and national identity distinct from that of Britain organized public commemorations and festivities throughout the country. These events were designed to establish Columbus in the public’s mind and memory as the discoverer of America and, by extension, the United States. The goal behind this commemorative campaign by nationalists such as Noah Webster, David Ramsay and Benjamin Rush was to create an origin story for the new nation that transcended the history of English and British colonialism and imperialism.
In the fall of 1792, large public festivities were held in Boston, New York and Baltimore among other places. In New York, the recently established Society of Tammany (also originally referred to as the Columbian Order) held a gathering and erected a 14-foot obelisk engraved with depictions of Columbus. In Baltimore, the Chevalier D’Anemours also erected an obelisk with “suitable inscriptions, on Metal Tables” that still stands today. In Boston, the new Massachusetts Historical Society marked the festivities with its first public lecture, “A Discourse intended to Commemorate the Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.” Delivered by its founder, Jeremy Belknap, the speech depicted Columbus’s journey as the beginning of a world-historical process in which the seat of knowledge and science moved westward, from Europe to the New World.
The erection of the monuments was central to the goal of creating a new national origin story. Throughout the rest of the decade, Columbus became further incorporated into American public memory by the use of “Columbia” as a place name (most notably in the nation’s capital) and in variations used in naming newspapers and voluntary societies. Depictions of Columbia were common in nationalist-themed paintings and engravings from this period.
Meanwhile, young Americans encountered the story of Columbus in their educational texts. The Little Reader’s Assistant, a highly popular reader by Noah Webster, included “The Story of Columbus” and concluded with the exhortation: “Let every child in America learn to speak the praises of the great Columbus.”
In addition to the use of Columbia in prospect poems, Columbus himself served as a major character in the first American epic poem of note, “The Vision of Columbus” by Joel Barlow (which he later rewrote in the early 19th century as “The Columbiad”). The famous poem began with Columbus sitting dejected in a Spanish prison until an angel revealed to him a vision of the future of the land he “discovered.” This vision included the American Revolution, which would allow knowledge, science and the arts to develop further than they had in Europe. In these ways, the memory of Columbus became a nationalist tool for those who believed that establishing cultural independence from Britain was key to maintaining tenuous political independence.
Over the next two centuries, writers, politicians and ordinary citizens all continued to reshape Columbus’s legacy and memory like they did at the beginning of the nation’s history. It became justification for the nation’s westward expansion, and helped to promote assimilation among white immigrants. In 1828, Washington Irving’s semi-fictional “History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus” created and popularized many of the most common myths about Columbus including the false assertion that his voyages proved to European scholars that the Earth was round rather than flat.
Memory of Columbus, however, also had more destructive consequences. In the mid 19th century, Columbia and the Columbian legacy depicted by Belknap was used to justify the idea of “Manifest Destiny” by making him the patron saint of the westward expansion of the new nation across the continent. In a speech justifying the Mexican American War in 1846, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton reminded his colleagues of “the grand idea of Columbus,” who by “going west” had “provided America with her true course of empire.” In other words, just as he had done so in life, Columbus’s memory was used to justify the systematic displacement and genocide of indigenous peoples.
By the end of the 19th century, Columbus became a useful symbol to urban political machines seeking to consolidate the support of the growing Italian-American immigrant community, especially in New York where the monument at Columbus Circle was erected. “Under the inspiration of Him whose name we bear,” wrote Thomas Cummings to the newly established Knights of Columbus, “we have the broadest kind of basis for patriotism and true love of country.” As Gov. Cuomo’s comments remind us, these efforts were effective in promoting the acculturation of those immigrants into the national polity as well by offering them a direct opportunity to express patriotism for their new country.
Reckoning with the constructed and constantly changing nature of the memory of Columbus in our national history reminds us that monuments, like our collective memories, are constantly being reimagined and remade. Certain figures and events have been lionized greatly at certain times in American history only to disappear from the collective consciousness when their memories no longer serve their original purpose and cannot be adapted to suit a new purpose or when the public perception of those figures has changed. Most significantly, this reminds us that we are not beholden to our origin stories, and in fact, we have a civic responsibility to define them — whether through creating or rejecting them — as part of the process of defining ourselves. That is an American tradition.