In 1892 The Youth’s Companion—a national magazine for kids edited by Francis Bellamy (the socialist minister better known for writing the Pledge of Allegiance)—offered its readers a program to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. Every school in the nation, the magazine solemnly intoned, was to follow it to the letter.
Students and war veterans were to gather around the school flagpole at 9:30 am and begin by reading President Benjamin Harrison’s ode to Columbus, followed by the flag raising, the singing of “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” a Bible reading chosen by local religious dignitaries, and finally performing an original Columbus Day song commissioned for the occasion.
Columbus’s quadricentennial was 100 years in the making, and it would take nearly another century for a more critical and historically accurate picture of Columbus to creep into the American consciousness.
The American Revolution created the Columbus most of us over the age of 30 learned in grade school. Prior to the late 18th century, he was a historical footnote with no connection to the 13 colonies. An Italian, he sailed under a Spanish flag and landed in no part of the modern-day mainland United States. Yet when the need to develop a national history with no discernible connection to Britain arose during the Revolution, early Americans seized upon him. He was a blank slate on whom post-Revolution Americans could project the virtues they wanted to see in their new nation. Then, as now, the process of writing Columbus was one of defining what it means to be American.
In 1775 Phillis Wheatley, a 14-year-old free African-American girl, wrote a poem to George Washington that so moved the general that he distributed it widely. In it “Columbia” was used as an allegorical representation of the American nation, no doubt a riff on the female figure of Britannia. Though written examples of “Columbia” as old as 1761 exist, young Wheatley’s correspondence with the most popular man in the colonies made it, in today’s parlance, go viral.
Soon Columbia and Columbus were appearing in songs, poems, and essays in newspapers around the colonies. Historian Claudia Bushman cataloged nearly 100 of the surviving odes, most of which are awful. Columbus went from a minor figure in the history of European exploration to an American hero almost overnight.
Why? Even then, people knew that Europeans, including Vikings and Portuguese fishing fleets, had visited or sighted North America before Columbus. And other explorers of Columbus’s era have better claims to “discovery” of the land that we now call the United States. But the politics of the Revolution disqualified the other contenders. Henry Hudson was British. Giovanni Caboto (anglicized as “John Cabot”) sailed for Britain. Juan Ponce de Leon was already in use as a hero in Spain. Giovanni da Verrazzano met an end unbefitting any proper national hero, having been eaten by Carib Indians in 1526.