Alessandro Geraldini

North American Hero? Cristopher Columbus 1702-2002

John P. Larner

University of Glasgow

Outside Union Station, in Washington D.C., attended by imperial lions and eagles, standing upon a decorative ship, whose figure­head represents both Faith and The Spirit of Discovery, and as if contemplating serenely the fruit of all his labours, a fifteen-foot-high statue of Columbus gazes down Delaware Avenue to the Capitol and the figure of Armed Freedom that surmounts it. On the back of the plinth against which it stands are incised the dates of his birth and death, or rather, since both are given inaccurately, what the sculptor conceived those dates to be.[1]  In this paper, I am, of course, only very incidentally concerned with, as it were, the reverse of this monument. It is not my aim here to correct or augment knowledge of the real Columbus and the real Discovery of America. My interest lies rather in that dramatic image to the front, in hero-worship, myth, its interaction with historiography, its role in civic patriotism.[2]

[1]  "Born MCDXXXVI; Died MDIV" Before the discovery of the so-called "Assereto docu­ment" in 1904, 1436 was sometimes suggested as the date of birth. The substitution of 1504 for 1506 has arisen, perhaps, from a confused recall of the Roman numeral system. The "Washington Fountain" was erected largely through the lobbying of the Knights of Colum­bus who in 1909 persuaded Congress to allot $100,000 to the project. At its unveiling, in 1912, twenty thousand of the Knights paraded through the capital: C. I. Kaufmann, Faith and Fraternalism: The History of the Knights of Columbus 1882-1982 (New York, 1982), 162—63. The sculptor, Lorado Taft (1860-1936), executed many public commissions in his career:Washington: The National Capital, ed. H. P. Caemmerer (Washington, 1932), 673.

[2] See, for comparison, Thomas L. Connelly, The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and his Image in American Society (Baton Rouge, 1977); Thomas Brown, JFK: History of an Image (Bloom­ington, 1988). Since delivering this paper for publication I have had the pleasure of reading Claudia L. Bushman’s America discovers Columbus: How an Italian Explorer became an American Hero (University Press of New England, Hanover, N.H. and London, 1992), an admirable and lengthy study which, however, reflects different interests and reaches different conclu­sions from those found here.