Monday, October 12, 2009 10/12/09 - columbus and america

In today's encore excerpt - the brand
new country of America struggles with its
name, and, in need of a non-British hero
after the scourge of King George III and the
Revolutionary War, resurrects the
mostly-forgotten Christopher Columbus:

"Considerable thought was given in early
Congresses to the possibility of renaming the
country. From the start, many people
recognized that United States of America was
unsatisfactory. For one thing, it allowed no
convenient adjectival form. A citizen would
have to be either a United Statesian or some
other such clumsy locution, or an American,
thereby arrogating to ourselves a title that
belonged equally to the inhabitants of some
three dozen other nations on two continents.
Several alternatives were actively considered
- Columbia, Appalachia, Alleghania, Freedonia
or Fredonia (whose denizens would be called
Freeds or Fredes) - but none mustered
sufficient support to displace the existing

"United States of Columbia was a somewhat
unexpected suggestion, since for most of the
previous 250 years Christopher Columbus had
been virtually forgotten in America. His
Spanish associations had made him somewhat
suspect to the British, who preferred to see
the glory of North American discovery go to
John Cabot. Not until after the Revolutionary
War, when Americans began casting around for
heroes unconnected with the British Monarchy,
was the name Columbus resurrected, generally
in the more elegant Latinized form Columbia,
and his memory generously imbued with the
spirit of grit and independent fortitude that
wasn't altogether merited.

"The semi-deification of Columbus began with
a few references in epic poems, and soon
communities and institutions were falling all
over themselves to create new names in his
honor. In 1784, King's College in New York
became Columbia College, and two years later,
South Carolina chose Columbia as the name for
its capital. In 1791, an American captain on
a ship named Columbia claimed a vast tract of
the Northwest for the young country and
dubbed it Columbia. (It later became the
states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho,
though the original name lives on north of
the border in British Columbia.) Journals,
clubs, and institutes ... were named for the
great explorer. The song 'Hail Columbia'
dates from 1798.

"After this encouraging start, Columbus's
life was given a kick into the higher realms
of myth by Washington Irving's ambitious, if
resplendently inaccurate, History of the
Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,
which came out in 1828 and was a phenomenal
best-seller in America, Europe, and Latin
America throughout the nineteenth

Bill Bryson, Made in America,
Perennial, 1995, 59-61.


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