Despite the fact that many anti-American radicals have waged a war on Christopher Columbus over the last two decades, the countless statues and institutions named after Columbus attest to how enthusiastically most of the country once embraced the Italian explorer who discovered the "New World."
Initially, admiration for Columbus sprang from a dislike for England and a yearning for a truly American hero, rather than from Columbus himself. According to Claudia Bushman, a historian at Columbia University, in her book America Discovers Columbus: How an Italian Explorer Became an American Hero, the Columbus cult arose in part because it "provided a past that bypassed England."
Despite his landfall in the Caribbean in 1492, Columbus never set foot on the North American mainland, as John Cabot did in 1497.
So, how did Columbus come to be seen as the idealized icon of New World discovery? It did not occur immediately. History largely ignored Columbus, Cabot, and other explorers for several centuries after their missions of discovery.
“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.”
According to a 1992 study published in the Journal of American History by University of Notre Dame historian Thomas J. Schlereth, the 200th anniversary of Columbus' landing in 1692 featured no words or deeds recognizing the explorer.
What changed? The American colonists required a heroic symbol to represent their newly sovereign nation. Columbus seemed to fit the bill quite well. Cabot did not, despite the fact that he was not an Englishman, but an Italian, like Columbus. But Cabot sailed for Britain, and the Americans wanted nothing to do with that.
“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. (Due to claims of colonial mismanagement, the Spanish crown had Columbus arrested and returned to Spain in chains, where he served a brief prison sentence. Despite the fact that King Ferdinand released him and eventually funded a fourth voyage, Columbus's prestige and authority would never fully 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.”
By 1777, American poet Philip Freneau defined his homeland as "Columbia, or America as it is frequently referred to after Columbus, the first discoverer." Others argued that the 13 states should use the name "Columbia" instead of "United States of America." Of course, they didn't, but they did name the new capital "Territory of Columbia" in 1791, which was later renamed "District of Columbia."
King's College, which was founded during the reign of King George III, was renamed Columbia University in 1784. In 1786, South Carolina designated Columbia as its state capital.
There are currently 54 cities in the United States, including the nation's capital, that are named after Christopher Columbus.
If you proudly support Columbus and a grateful that he discovered the New World, order a bag of our award-winning "Columbus' Italian Roast" coffee today!