A Tent On The Porch

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This country’s long, acrimonious observance of the Columbian quincentenary is finally over, but it won’t be soon forgotten. during it, the much-abused figure of Christopher Columbus seemed to offer an irresistible target at which all sorts of present-minded concerns could be hurled. His case should remind us of how forcefully the shifting needs of the present affect our visions of the past, just as when a moving automobile changes direction, it transforms the vista in its rearview mirror. The contentious tenor of the 1992 quincentenary was surely affected by growing concerns about the American future and by the premonitions of national decline that ran like a dark thread through the public discourse of the late eighties and early nineties.

 

Fears may feel unprecedented when we are in their grip, but in fact, premonitions of decline have come easily and often to a nation that from its inception envisioned itself as a new Zion or Rome. The burden of that founding vision has helped shape our anxieties; indeed, the most frequently offered scenario of recent years resounds with biblical and Roman overtones. It depicts the United States as a victim of its own fecklessness and imperial overreaching, imprisoned by unwise overseas commitments and dependence on military power, enfeebled by an inefficient and debt-ridden economy, and haunted by a stark future of declining living standards and pervasive social unrest. The price of exemplary aspiration, it has seemed, is exemplary failure; those who have exalted themselves are being humbled.

But more than mere dissatisfaction with the direction of American society lay behind the transformation of Columbus from one of Western civilization’s principal heroes into one of its principal villains, a sinister agent of disease, genocide, “ecocide,” slavery, and oppression. Such a transformation bespeaks a waning of confidence in Western civilization itself, and in the United States as its exemplar. So, too, does the growing success of “multiculturalism,” whose “anti-Eurocentric” thrusts have reflected a profound weakening in the prestige and binding power of the country’s European heritage, contributing mightily to the bitter tone of the quincentenary. Such assaults may have offered an important historical corrective—when they didn’t rely on bad history and reasoning to make their case—but that is beside the point. Like it or not, Columbus’s status as a cultural lightning rod reflected the contemporary discontents of the civilization he had helped create.

It was not the first time Columbus had been made the occasion and symbolic focus for national soul-searching. In fact, there are strikingly similar elements in the previous Columbian centennial. That celebration’s centerpiece, the great Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, was a lavish showcase for American technological progress, but it was mounted at a time of unsettling change in the land. “Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time,” observed Henry Adams, “the question whether the American people knew where they were driving”; to many, the answer seemed uncertain. The rise of massive industrial combinations, severe and recurrent financial panics, increasing labor violence, the Populist insurgency, the influx of non-Anglo-Saxon foreigners into ungovernable cities, the closing of the Western frontier, and the prospect of an American overseas empire—all these developments seemed to challenge not only the serene composure of the White City but the most venerable principles of American life.

Hence it was fitting that the young historian Frederick Jackson Turner should choose the setting of the exposition-related World’s Congress of Historians and Historical Students to present his famous paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” a landmark text whose centenary we observe this July. Turner’s contention that the availability of free land on a Western frontier had “explained” American development became the single most influential interpretation of American society and culture ever written, one that has shaped American historical writing ever since, giving rise to several generations of spirited debate and incessant re-examination. And Turner took care to link his inspiration directly to the heroic image of Columbus as explorer and discoverer, reminding the audience that ever since “the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity.”

For Turner, the bold exploratory energy of Columbus’s quest virtually defined the meaning of America. Hence his thesis is often read as the quintessential example of optimistic, forward-looking, triumphant American exceptionalism. But there is more to it than that. Turner’s thesis was also a reflection of and comment on its own soul-searching times. Few works of the American fin de siècle better expressed the tension between a traditional vision of America as the land of boundless possibility and an emerging sense of America as a closed and finished nation. There was no more potent symbol of boundlessness than the frontier; and the process by which it had yielded to settlement and civilization—the process Turner attempted to describe—seemed to dramatize the nation’s impending reckoning with consolidation and constraint.