Remembering Columbus: Blinded by Politics
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The dozens of American cities, counties, and institutions that are named after Christopher Columbus (or his literary equivalent Columbia) signify the privileged role that Columbus holds in American civic life. Early Americans depicted Columbus as America’s first frontiersman, a hero who had left the comforts of Europe to search for a fresh start in a new world. They cheered him as an enlightened champion of science who upended obscurantist European ideas.
Washington Irving popularized this interpretation of Columbus in his History of the Life and Voyages of Columbus, published in 1837. In Irving’s hands, Columbus became a man of science who liberated himself from the shackles of medieval and Catholic Europe to shape a progressive and Protestant America. Much of Irving’s biography of Columbus is pure fiction, but his book defined Columbus for nineteenth century Americans. The most enduring myth that Irving promoted was the false assertion that Ferdinand and Isabella believed that the...