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Washington and Columbus Connection

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Compiled by Jim Moyer 9/1/2017, 9/16/2019, 10/12/2019

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United States sought an Origin story that didn’t involve the British — and that meant Columbus.

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He represents freedom,

a guy who had turned his back

on the Old World

and sailed

in the name of a monarch

and then

been treated very badly

by that monarch.   

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Smithsonian Magazine Oct 9, 2015

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From the Nation article  OCTOBER 9, 2017:

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“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.”

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According to this source, Phillis Wheatley may have been 21 years old instead.   A sad story lies behind this.

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The Nation article continues,

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In it

“Columbia”

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was used

as an

allegorical

representation

of the

American nation,

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no doubt

a riff on the

female figure of Britannia.

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Britannia on the British Penny from 1901 to 1970. See link.

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Though written examples of “Columbia” as old as 1761 exist,

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young Wheatley’s correspondence

with the

most popular man

in the colonies

made it,

in today’s parlance, go viral.

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Soon Columbia and Columbus

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were appearing in songs, poems,

and essays in newspapers

around the colonies.

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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.

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Source:

Nation article  OCTOBER 9, 2017:

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But did George Washington distribute that poem?

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George Washington writes  Phyllis Wheatley back.

He writes from from Cambridge February 28th 1776:

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I would have published the Poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the World this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of Vanity. This, and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public Prints.

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But !!!

GW sent Wheatley’s letter and poem  to Joseph Reed in Philadelphia on 10 Feb. 1776, and Reed apparently arranged to have it published in the Pennsylvania Magazine 2 April 1776 and then in the  Virginia Gazette, 30 March 1776. 

See Founders Online footnote and copy of poem.

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See Wheatley’s first letter to Washington here. 

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Part of that poem honoring Washington and Columbia:

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One century scarce perform’d its destined round,

When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;

And so may you, whoever dares disgrace

The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!

Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,

For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.

Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,

While round increase the rising hills of dead.

Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!

Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,

Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,

With gold unfading, Washington! be thine.

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See Founders Online: GW to Reed, 10 Feb. 1776, n.10.

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Another version of this Columbia poem was  published.

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“During the year of her death (1784), she was able to publish, under the name Phillis Peters, a masterful 64-line poem in a pamphlet entitled Liberty and Peace, which hailed America as “Columbia” victorious over “Britannia Law.”   —- See source.

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Britannia owns her Independent Reign,
Hibernia, Scotia, and the Realms of Spain;
And Great Germania’s ample Coast admires
The generous Spirit that Columbia fires.
Auspicious Heaven shall fill with fav’ring Gales,
Where e’er Columbia spreads her swelling Sails:
To every Realm shall Peace her Charms display,
And Heavenly Freedom spread her gold Ray.

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Source:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/phillis-wheatley

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Columbia University

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As Columbia University historian
Claudia Bushman says in

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America Discovers Columbus:
How an Italian Explorer
Became an American Hero,

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the cult of Columbus

rose in part

because it:

“provided a past that bypassed England.”

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[Notice that quote is from a Columbia University historian?

 Established as King’s College in 1754 by King George II, this school got renamed after the Revolution in 1784, Columbia College.]

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“What they like about Columbus is that at this time he’s being portrayed as being almost an Enlightenment figure.

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He represents freedom, a guy who had turned his back on the Old World and sailed in the name of a monarch and then been treated very badly by that monarch.

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Cabot isn’t forgotten everywhere. His Discovery Day is celebrated Newfoundland and Labrador, where he set foot on mainland North America. But he quickly faded from U.S. history even as Columbus began a truly meteoric rise.  

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The rest of this article tracks how Columbus became over the years ever more a symbol of America.

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Source:

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https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-christopher-columbus-was-perfect-icon-new-nation-looking-hero-180956887/#dTGl9aZxYKDuALhF.99

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Origin Story:

Columbia and Columbus


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By 1777,

the American poet Philip Freneau described his country as “Columbia, America as sometimes so called from Columbus, the first discoverer.” There were others who advocated that the 13 states should adopt the name “Columbia” instead of the United States of America. They didn’t, of course, but they did dub the nascent capital the “Territory of Columbia” in 1791.

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in 1754

King’s College, named under the rule of George III, was renamed Columbia in 1784. South Carolina announced Columbia as its state capital in 1786.

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In 1788,

the Society of Tammany or Columbian Order was founded—it later became the power broking machine of the Democratic Party in New York headed by ‘Boss’ Tweed. “It took as its patrons Tammany, the legendary Indian chief of the Delaware tribe, and Columbus himself, these two figures being thought of as archetypically American,” wrote John Larner in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, during the Columbus Quincentenary.

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Why Columbus as Symbol?

What was it about Columbus that endeared him to so many during this period? Larner asserted that few Americans of the time knew much about Columbus the man:

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Not British

For most patriots, I would imagine, two things sufficed. The first was that he wasn’t English. The second was that, as it was believed, he had been treated with ingratitude by an Old World monarchy.

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Among the toasts drunk at the Tammany celebration of the Tercentennial – toasts played a large part in these early commemorations – was one that asked: “May the deliverers of America never experience that ingratitude from their country which Columbus experienced from his king.”

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Not Indian

Columbus also provided a convenient way to forget about America’s original inhabitants.

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Columbia a Woman

If the cult of Columbus was always more about an ideal than the man himself, that concept found full expression in the creation of Columbia—a feminine figure that came to represent the young New World nation.

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Source on above:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-christopher-columbus-was-perfect-icon-new-nation-looking-hero-180956887/#dTGl9aZxYKDuALhF.99

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Knowledge level

The only detailed history of Columbus and his voyages widely available in colonial libraries was written by a Scotsman, James Robertson, in 1777. The author took a racist, ethnocentric tone, depicting Columbus as an explorer of noble intent bringing civilization to the savages. Importantly, Robertson also historicized Columbus as a man stifled by the rigid ways of the Old World and yearning to set his own course. The metaphor was not subtle, and revolutionary America embraced it.

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All the names
Towns and streets beyond counting, including state capitals in South Carolina (1786) and Ohio (1812), were named for him. In 1784, King’s College in New York City restyled itself Columbia University. Many publications—Columbian Magazine (1786), Columbian Museum (1791), the Columbian Register, the Columbian Weekly Register—appropriated his name. The political organization that eventually became the powerful Tammany Hall political machine in New York was founded in 1786 as the Columbian Order. In 1791, the Territory (later District) of Columbia was established as the national capital. A year later, Robert Gray, sailing the Columbia, scouted the Pacific Northwest, christened the Columbia River, and named the entire region Columbia (which survives north of the border today as British Columbia). And in 1798, Joseph Hopkinson wrote the original national anthem, “Hail Columbia.”

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A Fad?

Two events conspired to ensure that the American affection for Columbus was no passing fad. First, Americans turned the tricentenary of Columbus’s 1492 voyage into a massive celebration. Statues and monuments began appearing around the country. New York, Boston, and Philadelphia all held parades led by costumed actors portraying Columbia and Christopher Columbus. Who better to lead the nation’s first opportunity to celebrate a history that was not connected to Britain and had not happened within living memory?

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Rather than fade,

the mythologization of Columbus only intensified. Joel Barlow’s epic (and nearly unreadable) poem The Columbiad (1807), for example, was narrated by an angel. Judging by the popularity of the poem, few at the time thought attributing divine guidance to Columbus (read: America) was overwrought.

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Washington Irving

The second key turning point in weaving Columbus into the fabric of American identity was the publication in 1828 of Washington Irving’s The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. This stunningly inaccurate book purported to be a history and codified the version of Columbus who “sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two” taught to generations of American children. Exemplary of Irving’s mythmaking was the mangling of Columbus’s motivation for the voyage of 1492. The real Columbus studied Portuguese sailors’ maps, concluded that Southeast Asia lay just beyond the map edges, and set out to prove it. Irving’s Columbus sailed to prove that the world was round, thumbing his nose at European elites who insisted it was flat. Throughout the book, Columbus is valiant, intrepid, and eager to shed Old Europe—not coincidentally, exactly the qualities the United States saw in itself.

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400th Anniversary

But even compared to the late 18th century, nothing can match the Columbus Fever achieved in 1892–93 as the country celebrated the 400th anniversary of his voyage with the Chicago World’s Fair, the “Columbian Exposition.” No monument was too grand, no speech too florid or obsequious, and no projection of the nation’s desire to assert itself too obvious for the America of 1893. Francis Bellamy’s program for schools was, if anything, restrained by the standards of that year.

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500th Anniversary 1992

His landing in 1492 was downgraded (appropriately) from a “discovery” to the more prosaic “encounter” or “exchange,” as Americans slowly admitted that the word “discovery” is a poor description of a man landing on an island where other people already lived.

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Source of above:

https://www.thenation.com/article/the-invention-of-christopher-columbus-american-hero/

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