06/22/07 - america and columbus

In today's excerpt - a young America struggles with its name and, in need of a non-British hero after the scourge of King George III and the Revolutionary War, America resurrects the 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 to America 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 name.

"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 century."


Bill Bryson


Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States


First Avon Books


Copyright 1994 by Bill Bryson


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