Columbus Day is here again — bringing both celebrations and denunciations of the man whose name the holiday bears. And it’s not just the holiday: Christopher Columbus’s name has been worked into numerous cities across the United States, the names of ships and universities — even a space shuttle. And from an early age, schoolchildren learn about the voyages of the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María, and the man who “discovered” the American continent. But many Americans have also questioned Columbus’s legacy. Should we venerate a man who symbolizes European colonization, and who inaugurated the decimation of native populations that would continue for centuries?
So on this episode of BackStory, Peter, Ed, and Brian explore the controversial Columbian legacy, diving into current debates, and looking back on how earlier generations have understood America’s purported discoverer. When and why did we begin to revere the Italian explorer? Who has seized on his legacy, and who has contested it?
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ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.
It was 521 years ago this week that Christopher Columbus came ashore in the Bahamas. And ever since, people have been struggling to define just what that event meant. For the first 300 years, he was only one in a sea of European explorers. But in the early decades of US history, a bestselling biography helped elevate Columbus above the rest.
ROLENA ADORNO: So what emerges is this sole heroic figure who has to work against the interests of others.
ED: These days, Columbus has been taken down more than a few notches. In some high school history classrooms this fall, in fact, he’s even being put on trial for mass murder.
STUDENT AS QUEEN ISABELLA: We gave him money for spices and gold. We didn’t give it for him to shed blood and kill all those people.
ED: Today on BackStory, Christopher Columbus’s long and twisted journey through history.
PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.
ED: Hi, Brian.
BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.
PETER: Hey, Brian.
DAN RATHER: 500 years ago today, Christopher Columbus landed on a Caribbean island thinking he was off the coast of Asia. He found–
BRIAN: This is a CBS News report from October 12, 1992. Columbus Day.
DAN RATHER: Was he a genius, a tyrant, or both? As John Blackstone reports, the argument is gaining momentum today.
BRIAN: Ground zero for that argument was San Francisco. Columbus Day was a big deal for the city’s Italian American community. They’d been celebrating it since 1869. There was a parade with floats and marching bands and local politicians mugging for the crowd. Italian American girls competed to be crowned Queen Isabella.
PETER: And of course, there was also Christopher Columbus. Each year a reenactor represented the great navigator himself, complete with sword and gold cross. And for the 500th anniversary, the coordinating committee had something special planned. Columbus would arrive not by plane, train, or automobile, but by boat, just like in olden times.
JOHN BLACKSTONE: Joseph Cervetto was all dressed up and ready to wade ashore triumphantly as part of the festivities in San Francisco yesterday.
BRIAN: But when Cervetto’s boat got close to shore on the big day, his crew noticed a problem. There was a crowd of around 4,000 protesters lining the waterfront. They were part of a coalition led in part by the American Indian movement, and they held signs with slogans like, “End 500 years of racism!” and “No to slavery and genocide.” They were there to stop Columbus from landing.
PETER: One of those protesters was a man named Sam Diener. He was on shore handing out pamphlets and he remembers other protesters bobbing out into the bay in boats. He called it a peace navy.
SAM DIENER: This motley collection of canoes and kayaks and sailboats with signs and banners, and folks crisscrossing the bay ready to greet any ship that came in with the Columbus actor.
JOHN BLACKSTONE: The welcoming party was so unfriendly that Columbus just waved from way out beyond the breakwater and kept on sailing.
MALE SPEAKER: Maybe next year he might show up.
SAM DIENER: There was an announcement that came out that the folks who were organizing the Columbus landing had decided not to run the gauntlet of the peace navy and not to land at Aquatic Park after all. And a big cheer came from the crowd. And basically at that point, people hugged each other and congratulated each other, and we dispersed.
PETER: Unfortunately, the day didn’t end so peacefully. After Columbus turned around, most of the protesters, like Sam, went their separate ways. But a few hundred headed over to the official parade, which wound through a heavily Italian part of town. According to news reports, that’s when things got out of hand.
BRIAN: Some protesters threw raw eggs at parade floats. Others shouted, “Mass murdering pig!” at the Columbus reenactor, who had– yep– finally made it to land. A few even threw Molotov cocktails.
Some paraders fought back, leading to fights in the street. In the end, police arrested 40 demonstrators for disrupting the parade and inciting riot.
PETER: National newspapers and TV networks picked up the story. It was the first major Columbus Day protest to get this kind of widespread coverage. And for many Americans, it was their first real exposure to the idea of Columbus as a villain.
SAM DIENER: I remember also going home on the bus talking with this older Italian American woman who was just befuddled and confused and a little bit hurt by all these protests. And she was like, why are you protesting Columbus? Are you anti-Italian? What is this? And it disturbed her.
And that was interesting to me to encounter a previous generation’s view of Columbus. And what Columbus for her meant was about her Italian pride, not having ever been exposed to the idea that Columbus committed horrible crimes.
PETER: For the rest of the hour today on BackStory, we’re going to look at the ways this one man has meant so many things to so many different people. From his transformation into the figure of Columbia way back in the founding period to the celebration of his origins by immigrants a century later, we’ll look at the ways generations of Americans have discovered, and rediscovered, Columbus.
ED: But before we consider Columbus’s legacy, we thought we should spend a few minutes considering what the man himself actually did. To do that, I sat down with Tony Horwitz. A few years ago, he dug into the story of Columbus’s voyages for a book he was writing. And he found that a lot of the things we think we know about Columbus just aren’t true.
Like the one for example, about how everybody else in 1492 thought the world was flat? Well actually, the idea that the Earth was round had been taken seriously since Aristotle. For centuries.
TONY HORWITZ: Columbus’s great vision was not that the world was round, but that it was small.
TONY HORWITZ: Columbus, drawing largely on scriptural sources in various mystical texts, felt that it was a matter of weeks to sail from Spain to the Indies, as it was known then. He was really looking for China and Japan and the riches of Asia. And that was a smaller distance than it actually is. It’s about 12,000 miles.
TONY HORWITZ: And he thought it was only a few thousand. So really, he succeeded because he was so desperately wrong.
ED: Wow, that’s fascinating. So Columbus’s great contribution, ironically, does not grow out of being an early Enlightenment thinker, but rather of being a one of a kind mystical thinker.
TONY HORWITZ: Yeah. To me, Columbus really represents more the end of medieval thinking, rather than an early Enlightenment figure.
He was also at the right place at the right moment and found a willing ear in Queen Isabella in particular, who was very pious. Part of what he promised was that the riches he discovered would be used to fund a crusade really, to reclaim Jerusalem for Christians. So I think he appealed to her partly on religious grounds.
ED: Tony, can you recreate for us what that moment of first contact with the native peoples looked like?
TONY HORWITZ: Columbus’s first landfall in the Americas is at the eastern edge of the Bahamas. It’s a peaceful encounter. He talks about the beauty of the landscape. He describes the people, who he finds very attractive and needless to say, have a lot of strange customs, one of which is smoking this leaf that they call tobacco.
There’s also a wonderful moment when he’s fed a strange creature. It was probably an iguana. And in this journal– I am not making this up– he writes, “tastes like chicken.”
TONY HORWITZ: I have to believe that’s the earliest such reference to that. One really disturbing note is he almost instantly writes of how these people are so childlike and willing that they could easily be turned into servants of the crown. By which he really means slaves.
He’s searching for gold and spice, and the islanders say something, which he clearly doesn’t understand, that suggests to him that just over the horizon he will find what he’s looking for. They were probably trying to get rid of him. And he sails off quite quickly to Cuba. And really, everywhere he lands, this somewhat comic scene repeats itself, where Columbus communicates what they’re after and islanders say, not here, but if you keep sailing, you’ll find it at the next place.
ED: So that sounds like a glorious, if unfulfilled voyage. He goes back home and he’s welcomed with celebration, I’m assuming. And then what happens?
TONY HORWITZ: Columbus returns to Spain with parrots and jewelry and other interesting items from his voyage, including about 10 natives, and is commissioned to embark on a second voyage with an enormous fleet and 1,200 men. And he tours much of the rest of the Caribbean and gradually becomes something of a failure.
He was, by all accounts, a great mariner and navigator. But he was hopeless on land and very poor as an administrator. So when his initial discoveries lead to the creation of a settlement, his fortunes really begin to go downhill. He sails off whenever there’s troubled to find other places, leaving incompetents in command– often family members.
And after his third voyage to America, he’s actually arrested and brought back to Spain in chains on charges of mismanagement and incompetence and brutality. And though he’s freed after six weeks, he really is a disgraced or distrusted man within Spain. And he has one more voyage, which is even more disastrous, and ends his days as really a very sad, broken figure.
ED: Well, I don’t want to hear that!
TONY HORWITZ: [LAUGHS]
ED: That’s not American! I mean, it’s a Horatio Alger in reverse, right?
TONY HORWITZ: Yeah.
ED: That he starts out successful, but then he can’t actually deliver on it. And this was widely recognized at the time? I mean, was he famous and then forgotten?
TONY HORWITZ: He is certainly famous in his day. Some of his letters and reports of his voyages get around Europe very quickly.
But one of the great ironies of Columbus’s story is that while he makes all these great discoveries, he doesn’t understand himself what he’s done. He continues to believe, apparently to his dying day, that he had reached Asia. And others were a little more clear-eyed and began to see that what he and his men were describing was not Asia. It really was a new world.
And as a result, it was others who began to build on those discoveries and even take credit for them. So that he became more and more lost really, in his own mind.
At one point, he even decides that the world isn’t round. He thinks he’s sailing uphill, and that the world is actually shaped more like a pear with a nipple where he thinks the Garden of Eden lies. So he really loses his way, and in some ways, seems to lose his mind in the course of these four voyages.
ED: Tony Horwitz is the author of A Voyage Long and Strange, among many other books. We have posted a link to an excerpt from that book at backstoryradio.org.
BRIAN: It’s time for a quick break. When we get back, the man who made Columbus into an all-American hero.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.
BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re marking Columbus Day with a look back at the many makeovers Christopher Columbus has undergone throughout American history.
BRIAN: We have a question from one of our listeners that came in on our website. It’s from Shane Carter, who teaches history. And Shane says that each year his students become fascinated by the other Spanish sailors who made their way to North America after Christopher Columbus in the 1500s.
People like Cabeza de Vaca and Vasquez de Coronado. Both those guys explored vast stretches of the current day Southwest. And then of course, there was Hernando de Soto, who traveled over what’s now the Southeast, and was the first known European to cross the Mississippi.
Shane writes that– and now I’m going to quote– “In order for the US to claim any kind of connection to Columbus, we seem to need to ignore 100 plus years of history.” So what do you think, Peter, Ed? Why does Columbus loom so much larger in our national mythology than these Spanish guys? After all, they actually made it to our land mass.
ED: When you really do think about it, it is remarkable how little enduring memorialization there is of de Soto, who would’ve covered more of what’s now British North America then anybody, right? Until Lewis and Clark.
ED: And we have no memory of him at all! So I think that Shane’s question’s an excellent one. And I wonder if it has something to do with Columbus’s uncertain ethnic origins. The fact that he’s kind of Italian, kind of Spanish. He’s kind of pa-European.
PETER: Well, he’s Italian, but he’s for sale. [LAUGHS] And whoever would sponsor him will get the advantage of his enterprise. So that idea that he’s up for grabs makes him a kind of European, a generic European. And that’s the way he sells himself.
I mean, this is a step– we had steps on the moon for mankind. Well, this is a step into the New World for Christendom, for Europe. And so he’s the beginning of everything in this age of the penetration of the New World. And then other national traditions that become increasingly clearly national traditions build on that beginning.
ED: Well, and it’s not just a national tradition in general. And Shane’s question is, how about these guys from Spain?
PETER: They’re the ones who actually come to what becomes the United States. But they come of course, in the name of the king of Spain. And here we get into dueling imperial histories.
What is the United States’ claim to North America? It’s not based on Spanish discoveries. It’s based first on English discoveries, English settlements.
And if you acknowledge the discoverers and you say they yeah, they were there, they planted the flag, it’s theirs! No. The British insist that it’s open space. It’s terra nullius. So in a way, the mapping of the New World leads to our interpretation of its history.
I think what’s interesting is you’ll get more interest in these figures– Coronado, de Soto, de Vaca, and so forth– now as we begin to understand the multi-imperial origins of the United States. And now that there’s a large Hispanic population, then these figures become important and Columbus fades away.
ED: OK. So what we will expect now is the Hispanicization of discovery, right?
PETER: You are so right.
ED: You know, Brian, I think you’re probably on the cutting edge of historical reclamation. I think listeners to our shows know that you are proud native of Southern Florida. Was there any sense of this sort of Spanish era in your childhood?
BRIAN: You bet there was, Ed. I went to Ponce de Leon Junior High School in Coral Gables, Florida.
PETER: Oh, that’s why you’re so youthful!
BRIAN: Eternally! And even before that, in elementary school, the history curriculum emphasized de Soto far more than Christopher Columbus. We were very proud of those Spanish explorers and conquistadors. And I’m not going to tell you about my toreador pants.
PETER: Well, you wouldn’t have been proud if you were a little bit older than you are now and were born in the 19th century. It’s only in the 20th century that new regional traditions emerged in the United States to reinforce the notion of the United States as a great power. The California missions, the southwest border lands, all became Spanish in the national imagination in the 20th century, long after they really were Spanish in any sense of the word.
ED: Yeah, after we’d actually established that we owned all that.
ED: Sure, put an adobe house here or there, right?
PETER: That’s exactly true! It’s a tourist scam! Think of Santa Fe. It’s make believe. It’s Disneyland before its time.
ED: So it sounds like to me that Shane makes a really good point, that we do ignore this 100 years ’cause we’re not exactly sure what to do with it. Precisely because it does have historical content, it’s like, oh man, that opens up a lot of issues. Let’s just go from Columbus to the Puritans and forget all that stuff that happened in between.
ED: Well, if you’re just joining us, this is BackStory and we’re talking about the ways Americans have told and retold the story of Christopher Columbus in the years since 1492.
BRIAN: If it was Columbus’s ambiguous origins that made him available for the taking, it was more than 300 years before somebody in America actually seized on that opportunity. That somebody was Washington Irving, better known today as the author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But in the 1820s, Irving’s Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, the first English language biography of the explorer, was a best seller. And it formed the basis for the Columbus that a lot of people would recognize today.
PETER: I sat down with Rolena Adorno, a professor of Spanish at Yale University. She told me that it was a visit to Spain that led Irving to chronicle Columbus’s story.
ROLENA ADORNO: When he was there, it was suggested to him that he produce a translation of the great body of documents associated with Christopher Columbus that were just being published at the time. In Spanish, of course. And he took a look at this massive corpus and realized that a translation would be more than a lifelong task for him. So he turned instead to, in fact, write a narrative of the life of Columbus.
PETER: Rolena, what about this portrait that Irving gives us of Columbus would you say was new?
ROLENA ADORNO: What Irving made perfectly clear was to create Columbus as a self-made man. And that’s an expression we get from a speech on the floor of the US Senate sometime during this same period. That is to say the individual who against all odds, with a visionary hope of his own, and full confidence that he can realize that vision, forges ahead, leaving anything and everybody who doesn’t want to go with him behind. It’s the frontier spirit.
PETER: Right. Irving’s Columbus then gives us a window into American cultural history of the period, or how Americans were beginning to think about themselves as they constructed their back story.
ROLENA ADORNO: Exactly. Exactly. It’s a Columbus who is somebody in a foreign land. It is someone who is going to create his own destiny, and that of an entire new world. And of course, in the United States this was so resonant in that period.
Remember, we’re in the period between the War of 1812. We are not yet into the era that will become the onset of the US Civil War. So it is a great time of expanding westward. And Columbus is a, shall I say, prototype of that adventure. So I think that’s always the resonance for this Columbus, this pioneering, entrepreneurial Columbus.
PETER: Rolena, we are terrible skeptics and cynics these days. It’s hard for us to read Washington Irving and believe that he believed what he was saying. Was he not aware of what seems like such blatant, romantic, over the top distortion?
ROLENA ADORNO: I think he was aware of that distortion. And the way I think that he was aware of it is by whitewashing Columbus himself. And putting the guilt for greed, exploitation of all sorts on the back of King Ferdinand and those seditious expeditionaries that were with him and those who followed.
These are Washington Irving’s words. He says that Columbus was, “continually outraged in his dignity, and braved in the exercise of his command, foiled in his plans by the seditions of turbulent and ruthless men.”
ROLENA ADORNO: And I must add, why is he doing this? He’s doing this of course, because even in Irving’s day, the fatal flaw was what led to the enslavement of a continent of peoples. So the way Irving casts this is that no, it was Columbus who had the heroic vision. And it was the others, not Columbus, who are responsible for all of the indignities that he suffered, not to mention the exploitation that the native peoples of the Americas suffered.
PETER: I’m wondering if the heroic Columbus doesn’t have an afterlife? We’ve beaten him down in the academy, but that sense of boy’s own adventure, enterprise, all that stuff. And it survived in school textbooks, didn’t it, well into the 20th century?
ROLENA ADORNO: It certainly did. Yes, as a kind of model of conduct. And so that image lived on and on.
And you may well imagine that when it was excerpted or when popular versions or textbook versions were made, they highlighted exactly the characteristics that we’ve been talking about. The sole individual, visionary in outlook, practical in approach, ready to conquer new worlds, ready to extend new frontiers, ready to do well for himself while claiming to do good for others.
PETER: Rolena Adorno is the Sterling Professor of Spanish and chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University.
ED: And so it was Washington Irving who gave Christopher Columbus his heroic stature in America. But it was another group of Americans who really get credit for getting the statues of Christopher Columbus built. That would be the associations of Italian and Irish immigrants, who first started celebrating Columbus in local parades in the 1860s. And those same groups, over the next several decades, successfully made the case for state and even national holidays in honor of the explorer.
PETER: The Irish latched on to Columbus because, like them, he was a Catholic. The Italians focused more on his roots in their homeland. But both groups recognized in Columbus an opportunity to lay claim to America’s very first founding father. And in so doing, to overcome their status as second class citizens and prove that they too belonged in America.
BRIAN: But there were other immigrants in the late 19th century who weren’t so keen on the Italian navigator. One of them was a Norwegian American scholar named Rasmus Bjorn Anderson. In 1874, Anderson published a book called America Not Discovered By Columbus.
JOANNE MANCINI: It’s one of those books where you can tell the thesis from the title.
BRIAN: This is Joanne Mancini, a historian in Ireland who’s written about how Anderson set out to tell a new story about the beginning of America, a story that would appeal to East Coast elites threatened by the wave of Catholic immigration. Instead of beginning in 1492, Anderson’s story started with the Vikings in the late 900s. Not only had they made it to the New World, he argued, they had sailed into Massachusetts Bay itself. Hence the town of Woods Hole, allegedly named with the Viking word for hill. Hence the supposed Viking skeleton unearthed in Massachusetts a few decades earlier.
Anderson sent copies of his book to luminaries like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and President Rutherford B. Hayes. And Joanne Mancini says it caught on.
JOANNE MANCINI: And after this point, there was a bit of another Viking craze where various people in New England really embraced the idea of Viking discovery. And so for example, there was a successful movement to have a statue of Leif Ericson in Boston, which was put up in 1887. And I think actually that there was a period where people found that every time they uncovered a rock and it had scratchings on it, that this had to be runic inscriptions.
BRIAN: [LAUGHS] And what was the appeal to those New Englanders? What about Anderson’s book might have been more attractive than the Columbus story as a founding story?
JOANNE MANCINI: Well, I mean there are a couple different things. And it depends on what perspective you take on it. But on the one hand, I think he was trying to appeal to certain understandings that the native born elite would have had about themselves.
So for example, he emphasized that these Norse settlers had institutions which were in a way, the predecessor institutions of American institutions. And so he emphasized that they were free men who assembled in what he called “open parliaments of the people”, referring to something which actually existed, which were these Scandinavian assemblies. And so he was appealing to their understanding of themselves politically.
But he was also appealing to the racial sensibilities of the day. He was suggesting that Americans of British descent were actually descended from the Northmen through the Norman conquest and through the Norse incursions into Britain. And he was also, I suppose, trying to establish to Americans that modern day Scandinavians were connected to this and that there was a link between the two peoples.
BRIAN: Right, so freedom loving people who passed that through their blood and through their cultural heritage.
JOANNE MANCINI: Very much. And through their religion as well. He was very careful to provide a contrast actually, between the Vikings and Columbus, whom he described as “subservient to inquisition.”
And he told a whole story about how this party of Vikings was led by Leif Ericson, the son of Erik the Red, and that one of the people who accompanied him was Leif’s brother, Thorvald Ericson. And so in Anderson’s book, he presents the story that Thorvald was killed by Indians in North America, crosses are erected on his grave, and that he sheds Christian blood. It’s a way for him to almost invert the history that people would have known, and indeed that people were still experiencing at the time about conquest, where most of the violence would have been perpetrated by Europeans against Indians.
And so in a way, he has this alternative history of the discovery of America where the violence is going primarily in the other direction against Europeans. And it’s an interesting story to be telling the people. Because if you think about this period, a lot of people in New England were quite uncomfortable with many of the trends in the West.
JOANNE MANCINI: And so Anderson was giving them this other story which says well, these people of free institutions and of the true race and Christianity come to America, they engage in battle with the Indians, the Indians win. And it’s a very different sort of take on things than the normal history that they would have had to confront. And it’s also a different story to the story of Columbus, where of course, there would’ve been a very strong tradition to emphasize what we would think of as the genocidal implications of the Colombian conquest.
BRIAN: If 19th century New Englanders were taken by this story as many were, how come it didn’t take off in the 20th century?
JOANNE MANCINI: Yeah, I think there are a couple of different dimensions of that. One is that in the 1920s, there is a successful push to have very strict restrictions on immigration. And so a lot of the dynamics which were pushing these kinds of distinctions between say, southern Europeans and northern Europeans, start to fade away because there are legal restrictions which are preventing many of these new populations from entering the country in large numbers. And so people become less preoccupied with that. And so the late 19th century search for alternative origins and the building up of an identity based on a very specific racial history becomes, I suppose, less of a feature of American racial politics as people become more focused on other issues regarding race.
BRIAN: Joanne Mancini is a historian at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. We’ll post a link to her article about America’s 19th century Viking enthusiasm at backstoryradio.org.
PETER: It’s time for another break. Coming up next, Columbus is asked to answer for his crimes to a room full of teenagers.
ED: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking today about Christopher Columbus and how his name has resonated throughout American history.
ED: We’re going to turn the clock back now to one of the first examples of Columbus’s name being invoked. In the 16th and 17th centuries, as people on both sides of the Atlantic debated what to call this new world, a variation on the explorer’s name often cropped up. Columbia. And though a different explorer– Amerigo Vespucci– ultimately got naming rights, the name Columbia did live on in a different guise.
PETER: During the Revolutionary War, a symbolic figure with that name emerged, eventually becoming as recognizable as Mickey Mouse is today. Part of the idea was to create a counter to England’s muse, Britannia.
ELLEN BERG: The first person who really made a very clearly human Columbia was Phillis Wheatley, who was a well known poet at the time of the Revolution.
PETER: This is historian Ellen Berg.
ELLEN BERG: And what was really striking about her is that she was a former slave. She’d come to America as a child and was enslaved. She was named after the slave ship she was brought on in 1761, The Phillis. And she lived with the Wheatleys in Boston originally, and was taught English by them, was taught to read and write, and became quite a well known poet in her time.
Where she really invents Columbia is in 1775. She writes a poem to George Washington, who was then the commander in chief of the Continental Army. And at that time, the two armies were at an impasse. And in a way, Phillis Wheatley is calling upon George Washington to action, and calling him to greatness. And she uses this goddess figure of Colombia for the first time that we really know of as a way of imploring him to lead the people on and create a great country.
PHILLIS WHEATLEY: To his excellency George Washington. Celestial choir enthroned in realms of light. Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write. While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms, she flashes dreadful in refulgent arms. See mother Earth–
ELLEN BERG: She sent the poem to him. And in fact a few months later– it took him a little while– but he wrote back to her and asked her to come visit him at his station so that he could thank her for this beautiful poem that she wrote.
PETER: Right, right.
ELLEN BERG: He then helped to get her poem into print.
PHILLIS WHEATLEY: Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side. Thy every action let the goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine. With gold unfading, Washington! Be thine.
PETER: After Washington helped publish Wheatley’s poem, Columbia began to show up in songs and newspaper cartoons. She helped give meaning to a nation in its infancy.
ELLEN BERG: In the early decades of Columbia, she is considered the genius of the place. Which is an old concept.
ELLEN BERG: But basically, she is the guiding force. She is this wise creature, this wise being who can lead the country. And I think that’s really important early on, because there’s some sense of a supernatural force who is helping us know what to do, where this country should be going.
So in the first few decades of use of Columbia, she is a bit removed from politics. She’s kind of off in a cave somewhere or up in the clouds in some beautiful place. And poets and some artists then use her to express their feelings about how the country’s going.
PETER: And the country looked to her throughout most of the 19th century. She was depicted weeping on Washington’s coffin. Presidential candidates were seen wooing her in the popular press. But soon, there was a new kid on the block.
ELLEN BERG: Ultimately, Uncle Sam really does supersede Columbia, but it takes quite a while for him to do that. He’s first identified as a symbol during the War of 1812. And I’d say it wasn’t for another 100 years or so that Uncle Sam really took her place or became more well known as a symbol. She’s use quite heavily alongside Uncle Sam during the Spanish-American War.
PETER: Are they depicted together sometimes?
ELLEN BERG: They are often–
PETER: Uncle Sam and Columbia?
ELLEN BERG: Yeah.
PETER: What an odd conjunction. It’s hard for me to imagine this classical woman in her flowing robes and this guy from Troy, New York with a beard.
ELLEN BERG: Yeah well, she’d had classical robes, but also a number of artists depicted her in more contemporary clothing. Depends on the time and the place.
But Uncle Sam and Columbia have an interesting relationship. It’s not always clear how they’re related to each other. Is he her uncle? That’s often one way he’s expressed. Sometimes it seems more of a domestic partnership or–
PETER: Ooh. There’s an erotic dimension to this then, you’re suggesting.
ELLEN BERG: Yeah, sometimes they are an old married couple with their children, the many states. So it’s a flexible relationship–
ELLEN BERG: That people can use as they see fit.
PETER: By the 20th century, with the federal government looming large, Columbia was on her way out. It was Uncle Sam’s turn to shine.
ELLEN BERG: Over time, Uncle Sam becomes more powerful with the rise of the federal government as a stronger and stronger power.
PETER: You might say that Columbia is the figure that embodies, almost literally, the nation. Whereas Uncle Sam is the more aggressive, assertive representation of the state.
ELLEN BERG: Yes.
PETER: And the balance between those two things, of course, has shifted over time. For the most part, Columbia has vanished from our memory. But Berg says she was so present through so much of our history that you can never erase her completely.
ELLEN BERG: Some people would argue that Columbia is right there in New York Harbor. The Statue of Liberty originally would have been considered as the Statue of Columbia for many, many Americans. And they referred to the statue in that way.
And I think it’s just over time, as our knowledge of Columbia has fallen, what remains is the statute who we know is the goddess of liberty. And the statue has become the stronger figure. So in a way, we can say that Columbia is still there, we’re just not really aware of it.
PETER: Ellen Berg is working on a book tracing the history of the goddess Columbia.
BRIAN: For the final part of our Columbus Day show, we’re going to turn to the place where a lot of people first hear the name of the great explorer, the school classroom.
JULIAN HIPKINS: Columbus is going to start. So Columbus is up front. The jury’s in the back.
ED: Now what you’re hearing is a bunch of 11th graders getting ready to do a little more than just read about the story of Columbus. Desks are set up in a long rectangle. At one end, a jury. At the other, a sort of a witness stand. The students here are about to put Christopher Columbus on trial.
JULIAN HIPKINS: The first two minutes roughly will be your time to say why you are innocent and who is guilty. And then the jury will be able to ask questions.
ED: This is Julian Hipkins. He’s a history teacher at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., which serves mostly black and Latino students. The trial he’s organized is based around Columbus’s voyages. It’s a sort of who done it. The class has to figure out who is most responsible for the decimation of the Caribbean Taino Indian population.
And it’s not just Columbus on trial . It’s also his men, the king and queen of Spain, and the entire system of colonialism itself. Even the Tainos are on trial for not fighting back.
JULIAN HIPKINS: So jury, as you’re going along, start thinking about percentage guilt. All right, Columbus, let’s go. Begin.
ED: Members of the jury question Columbus and several of the students who make up his council. And while speaking, they wave around incriminating documents like excerpts from Columbus’s journal.
MALE STUDENT: You ordered your man to chop off their hands if they didn’t come up with the amount of gold in three months. You also ordered your men to spread terror among the Tainos. What do you have to say about that?
ED: A very defensive Christopher Columbus says he gave those orders in response to violence instigated by the Tainos.
STUDENT AS CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: Sir, it was after they killed 39 of my men!
ED: Once the defendant steps down, his men are grilled.
FEMALE STUDENT: You were never given orders by Columbus to rape woman specifically, or to set dogs on children, so why did you do all of that as well?
ED: But they just pin it back on their boss.
STUDENT AS CREW MEMBER: We might have done those things. But in a way, we need a good loyal leader to lead us. And in a way, he just unleashed us into this land and we just misbehaved, which was on our part. But at the same time, we need guidance.
ED: The arguments ping pong back and forth. Students representing the system and then the Tainos take turns defending themselves . When Queen Isabella takes the stand, she says that it was all supposed to be a straight business operation.
STUDENT AS QUEEN ISABELLA: We gave him money for a voyage, for spices and gold. We didn’t give it for him to shed blood and kill all those people.
ED: The teacher, Julian Hipkins, says this way of teaching about Christopher Columbus forces students to think critically.
JULIAN HIPKINS: The thing I like with the trial is that it’s not so black and white where this person was responsible and this person wasn’t responsible. It’s much more complicated than that. You can have a lot of people responsible for one act in some way, shape, or form.
ED: And 16 year-old Destiny, who played Queen Isabella, says this story of Columbus is very different than the history she learned in elementary school.
DESTINY: It was like he had three ships. The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria and stuff. And he went on a couple of voyages.
And I knew there was a little song. It was some type of song they sang. I mean, I didn’t really know much about him.
ED: Finally, the verdict is read. Though nearly every defendant has pointed the finger back at Columbus, he doesn’t get most of the blame. It’s actually pretty evenly spread around.
CHRISTIAN: Columbus himself, 25%. Columbus’s men, 20%. King and queen, 30%. Tainos, 10%. And the system, 15%.
ED: Christian, the student who read the verdict, stresses that history wasn’t the only thing that went into those numbers.
CHRISTIAN: We tried our best to decide our ruling based on what the groups gave to us. Not based on our background knowledge, but what was presented to us. And because of that, some of the groups’ arguments weren’t really strong. So it didn’t help them very much to prove that they weren’t guilty.
ED: So Brian and Peter, I think it’s important to realize that this exercise we just heard is an exercise that’s used in lots of classrooms. And it was inspired by Howard Zinn’s bestselling book from 1980, A People’s History of the United States. In that book, he says we need to focus on the injustices of the American past, rather than just its great men.
So what do you guys think? Should we be teaching history by doling out blame for the darkest moments in our past?
BRIAN: This is, I think, a creative, and in my opinion, effective way to get a bunch of high school students engaged with material that’s got to be pretty distant to them on the surface. How do you get high school students all excited? Well, ask them to make some judgments about people.
PETER: Brian, I think you’re right about the excitement of in effect, having history, you make the decisions about what history is. And that is empowering. That is engaging.
But it reminds me of something that we do as historians, and have always done, and that we need to reflect on a little bit. And that is this revisionist impulse, which is the beginning of good history. That’s the idea. What do we think we know, and let’s challenge it.
Now revisionism goes way back in American historiography and I think the word is used in the 1960s. But by 1980, when Howard Zinn wrote The People’s History of the United States, this is in effect a summa, a big statement of revisionism. And rather than framing the question who made America, the question is what bad things happened to the people who are the real Americans?
So it switches the terms from nation making to the costs of nation making. Because at the end of the day, it’s the people who are the nation. So that’s a flip of perspective that I think’s really important. And I think it raises fundamental questions about what we do and how we think about somebody like Christopher Columbus.
ED: I have written that I want revisionist history the same way I want revisionist surgery. [LAUGHTER] I want people to be using the latest technology, the latest ideas that they have.
PETER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ED: And so Peter, revisionism actually begins in the 1930s for the Civil War as when it’s called.
PETER: Uh huh, right.
ED: And this seems so strange to us. The original revisionism was the Civil War was a remarkable waste of life because the condition of African Americans is still so bad.
PETER: Yes, yes.
ED: And so then it comes back in the ’60s. It does what historians really like to do, which is to think about where did we go wrong? Where did things change?
Here what I worry about, Brian, and go back to your endorsement of it, is how do we then move beyond vicarious judgment into a sense of vicarious participation? That we are all implicated in these systems.
And I think the kids in this story recognize this! They say it’s the king and queen. It’s the system, they call it. And they’re refusing to say it was just Christopher Columbus and his flawed character or whatever. They’re saying hey, we’re all implicated in this system.
BRIAN: Yeah, they even attributed a little bit of blame to the Indians.
ED: Right, right. So maybe the kids are smarter than we are?
PETER: Well, I think the great value of this exercise in judgment and revisionism is that it exposes the implicit and unexamined assumptions of moral goodness in the conventional narrative, the celebratory narrative.
ED: Right, right. That’s great.
PETER: I mean, it is a moral story, a story with a moral. That is the way we’ve been taught about those three ships and the founding of America. What a great thing that obviously was. And I think if we recognize that this highly judgmental attack on the conventional story about Christopher Columbus makes us think about how Columbus has been justified and how he functions in our national mythology, then maybe we can rise above simplistic moralizing to a more complex engagement with multiple narratives.
BRIAN: Yeah, I would just add to that, Peter. Although the assigning percentages is a little bit gimmicky–
PETER: It doesn’t happen in court. [LAUGHS]
BRIAN: So even though it’s a little bit gimmicky, I do think it’s a nice way to invite the students, and in fact, students of history, to think about the way different actors in history really connect with each other. Because often, they were acutely aware of many of the other actors involved in the story.
PETER: I think it’s important to remember too that Columbus was a national hero pretty recently into the 20th century. A hero for Italians, a hero for Roman Catholics, a hero for all Americans when he was incorporated in the national myth as we’ve heard in this program today.
It’s useful to get back to the empirical questions and ask well, what did happen? And then to assess this and also to assess the way we’ve made judgments over the centuries. There’s a lot at stake in this.
And it doesn’t really matter whether Christopher Columbus was a good guy or a bad guy. What matters is the way we think about the story we tell about ourselves. And it’s a story that is constantly in revision. And it’s because we’re constantly asking ourselves that question, who are we? Where are we going?
BRIAN: And that is where we’re going to leave things for today. But as always, there’s plenty more for you to explore online. Pay us a visit at backstoryradio.org to see the articles and books that shaped today’s show. You can also find all of our past shows there, along with a link to our free podcast.
PETER: Once again, that’s at backstoryradio.org. We’re also on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Don’t be a stranger.
ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Jess Engebretson, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Tony Field. Emily Charnock is our research and web coordinator, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
BRIAN: Special thanks to Francis Smith, Sharon Millner, Jason Slotkin, and the students at Capital City Public Charter School. Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History made every day.
ANNOUNCER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.