A. The growth and influence of historical institutions in the early United States
B. Facts and myths about Christopher Columbus
C. New information about events that occurred during Columbus’ explorations
D. How Columbus’ story was used to help create a national identity for the United States
NARRATOR:Listen to part of lecture in a United States history class.
FEMALE PROFESSOR:It's interesting how much we can learn about culture in the United States by looking at how Christopher Columbus has been portrayed throughout United States history.So let's start at the beginning.
Columbus' ships first landed in, uh, landed in the Caribbean-there's some debate about which island-he landed in 1492 but it wasn't until 300 years later, in 1792, that his landing was first commemorated.And this was the brainchild of John Pintard.
Pintard was a wealthy New Yorker, the founder of the New York Historical Society.And he decided to use his influence and wealth to, um, to find a great hero, a patron for the young country.And he chose Columbus.And in New York in 1792, the anniversary of Columbus' landing was commemorated for the first time.
Other cities, uh, Philadelphia and then Baltimore followed and...
MALE STUDENT:But why Columbus? And why then?
FEMALE PROFESSOR:Well, to Pintard, it was a way to build patriotism in the young, politically fractured country.Remember, the United States had only declared its independence from Britain 16 years earlier and had yet to form a national identity.Pintard also had a hand in helping to create Independence Day-July fourth-as a national holiday.So you see that he was very involved in creating sort of a "national story" for Americans.And Columbus ... he felt Columbus could become a story that Americans could tell each other about their national origins that was outside of the British colonial context.The United States was in search of a national identity, and its people wanted heroes.
MALE STUDENT:But why not some of the leaders of the revolution? You know, like George Washington?
FEMALE PROFESSOR:The leaders of the Revolution were the natural candidates to be heroes.But, many were still alive and didn't want the job.To them, being raised to hero status was undemocratic.So Columbus became the hero, and the link between Columbus and the United States took hold.
FEMALE STUDENT:And so what was that link?
FEMALE PROFESSOR:Well, Columbus was portrayed as entrepreneurial, someone who took chances, who took risks ...And he was cast as somebody who was opposed to the rule of kings and queens.Perhaps most of all, Columbus was portrayed as someone who was destined to accomplish things.Just as America in those early years was coming to see itself as having a great destiny.
FEMALE STUDENT:But Columbus was supported by the king and queen of Spain, he wasn't against them.
FEMALE PROFESSOR:True. To be historically accurate, the way Pintard thought about Columbus doesn't match up with the facts of his life at all.And I really have to stress this: the fact that Columbus became the hero of the young country had little to do with Columbus-anything he did-and a lot to do with what was happening in the United States 300 years later.
Columbus was extraordinarily adaptable to the purposes of America's nation builders-people like John Pintard-in the early part of the nineteenth century.And since not a lot of facts were known about Columbus ...his writings weren't available in North America until, until 1816 ...that might have actually helped the process of adapting him to American purposes.
MALE STUDENT:[Seeking confirmation] Since no one knew much about the "real" Columbus, it was easy to invent a mythical one?
FEMALE PROFESSOR:Exactly.And this "mythical Columbus," it ... it became a reflection of the society which chose him.So, in the early history of the United States, Columbus represented an escape from the political institutions of Europe; he was the solitary individual who challenged the unknown.And now there was this new democracy, this new country in a world without kings.Columbus became sort of the mythical founder of the country.
So, as historians, we wouldn't want to study these myths about Columbus and mistake them for facts about Columbus.But if we're trying to understand American culture, then we can learn much by studying how America adapts Columbus for its own purposes.Evaluations of Columbus, then, will reflect what Americans think of themselves.Oh . . . there's a quote ... something like ... "societies reconstruct their past rather than faithfully record it."And how that reconstruction takes place, and what it tells us ... that's something we're going to be paying a lot of attention to ...