Daily Record: Years since its discovery, America considers its identity

The year 1892 marked four centuries since “a sailor, adventurous, studious, credulous, ambitious, eager, dreamed of another world hidden behind the mists of the Atlantic.” The Chautauqua Assembly Herald reported that the Rev. J.B. Young of Kansas City, Missouri, was speaking of Christopher Columbus.

“The civilization of the world has been built up by dreamers,” Young said, in a speech titled “On the Track of Columbus,” delivered on Aug. 3 in the Amphitheater.

Columbus was considered a bit of a nut, though he had been surrounded from childhood by influences that helped to shape him for his career of discovery, Young said. He was born into an age that delighted in geographical exploration; it was an age of map construction, of heroic travels and adventures by sea and land.

Columbus was influenced by the legacy of Prince Henry of Portugal, “under whose inspiration and guidance the Portuguese had pushed their discoveries far and wide,” Young said. The prince had said “no” to England and to the Pope, and other sovereigns who, “in view of his military genius, invited him to command their armies, and share the honors of conquest.”

Prince Henry said, “I have better work. I propose to enlarge the boundary of human knowledge; to uncover the lands that are shrouded in the mists of the sea, to open up the world for commerce and the Christian faith!”

Young said that the common people thought Columbus’ adventure was “the inspiration of the devil, or as the freak of a lunatic.”

Columbus may have brought some of this on himself. He had considerable demands. In negotiation with the court of Spain, in return for his leadership, Columbus wanted the title “Don.” He wanted to be made Viceroy of the King and Admiral of the Sea. He wanted to receive one-tenth of all the gains that should come by traffic or discovery.

“In these terms, we see the ambition of the man and his desire for gold — a consuming thirst which was one of the factors of his entire career,” Young said. “His offer was pronounced preposterous, absurd, intolerable and the would-be discoverer, indignant, overwhelmed, outraged, that at last his hopes, on the verge of realization, should be wrecked, turned once more and as he thought finally, from the court of Spain.”

Then it was that a woman came to his side. Queen Isabella had cherished Columbus as a friend, believed in him and “interposed her wishes and authority, offered to pledge her jewels if need be to furnish funds, and pleaded that he might be recalled and furnished with the chance to undertake his journey.”

Columbus set off after prayers had been offered on Aug. 3, 1492. Few expected the crew to return. There were delays, broken ships, repairs and portents of doom. At last, on Oct. 12, “a new world burst before the explorer’s startled vision. His heart’s longings were fulfilled, his prophecies were justified, his work was done,” Young said.

Although he had not found a passage to India, he discovered a new world which, “after providential discipline and preparations, was to be the home and asylum of liberty to the end of time.”

If only it were that easy.

On the same day of 1892 that Young was orating his encomium to Columbus, Isabella and the homeland of liberty, Professor Moses Coit Tyler of Cornell University delivered a lecture “Are We Americans?”

Tyler said that the question “directs our eyes to a fact quite unprecedented in the history of the world — the fact of a powerful nation, a renowned nation, now more than a century old as a nation, more than two and one-half centuries old as a group of kindred communities, and yet, resting, today, under some shadow of doubt as to whether it yet has a national name.”

The moniker “The United States of America” seemed to lack important features of a national name. It isn’t a name at all, but a phrase. A mere proposition.

“Utterly void and dry of all that is picturesque and lovable,” Tyler said.

“America” in itself was a designation that did not designate, “since it is applicable to the whole hemisphere as well as our particular portion of it,” Tyler said. Moreover, this country was not the only United States in the modern world. In Europe, they had a United States of Holland, and in the Western hemisphere there was the United States of Central America, of the Argentine Republic and the United States of Brazil.

But then there had been proposed the name of “Columbia,” Tyler said, in honor of the great explorer who sailed upon these shores. Or possibly “Alleghenia” or “Appalachia,” names drawn from “that noble chain of mountains which formed [the country’s] backbone, that ran through the old confederacy when it first declared our national independence.”

Or call it what the old Norsemen called it: “Vineland,” Tyler said. “Vineland the good.”

Tyler summed up by saying that over the years, by his count, at least nine different names had been brought forward: “Columbia, Alleghenia, Appalachia, Washington, Vesperia, Freeland, Fredonia, Cabotia and Vineland.” As one last suggestion, if the people are still not satisfied with their country’s name, why not call it “Chautauqua,” Tyler said, to which he received applause.

America, in the end, seemed a fine name, according to Tyler. But what does such a name really stand for?

“At one time in China this land was known as the land of the ‘gaudy banner,’ ” Tyler said. “Is it not possible that some of our nearer neighbors … think of America as describing a land of grasping, selfish people, a land of a blustering republic? Do you think anywhere in the world the word America is going to convey to anybody the idea of an over-smart person in business, a sharper in politics, a braggart in conversation and a mercenary materialist in habits and methods of his life?”

Tyler hoped not. The idea of America is something very grand.

“Our country is working out one of the highest problems in the celestial dynamics of man,” Tyler said, and quoted Emerson: “ ‘America, America is another name for opportunity. Our whole history appears like a last effort of Divine Providence in behalf of the human race.’ ”

Tyler proposed that Chautauqua was already a part of this endeavor and was probably already part of what America may grow to be, “a people so wise, so true, so high minded, so pure hearted, morally courageous, so strong in self-restraint and in her civic virtue, so profoundly and magnanimously religious, and efficient in all things that go to make the best of this world and all worlds.”

During that summer of 1892 the Chautauqua Platform would pursue its civic virtue, addressing issues of Temperance, Suffrage, and American Identity. The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle’s graduating class was named the Columbia Class. The Recognition Day address that year was given by Frank W. Gunsaulus and was titled, “The Idea of Culture.”