The monument that created Columbus
In October 1792, the United States of America was still a new country, not even a decade old, fresh from a complete government overhaul just four years earlier. With only one federal election by that point, and one president, it was a nation long on ambition, but short on history. There were heroes, of course, drawn from the ranks of those who had struggled for independence from Great Britain. But Revolutionary heroes were growing politicized by 1792, taking sides in an emerging party system. What figure could rise above partisan squabbles to unite Americans in patriotic spirit? A New York merchant with a penchant for history and a budding fraternal organization had an answer: Christopher Columbus.
John Pintard was only 33 in 1792, but he was already heavily invested in promoting and preserving an American past. He had proposed a national antiquarian society, created a library focused on the Revolution, and founded the first museum in New York City. He had even pitched the idea of a national archives to Thomas Jefferson. Pintard’s desire to share his passion for history with his fellow Americans would make him something we are still familiar with today—an influencer.
The patriotic fraternal society he had started helped to amplify his message. Members marched in parades, published odes, presented orations, and hosted banquets to celebrate secular holidays that Pintard believed Americans should adopt, including Fourth of July and Washington’s Birthday. They also marked the May “feast day” of their adopted patron, Tamanend (known as “Tammany”), a Lenni-Lenape leader who had negotiated with William Penn to establish the Pennsylvania Colony. By the late 1700s, “Saint” Tammany had become the American equivalent of national figures like St. George. “Tammany Societies” had cropped up around the Revolution, celebrating the New World’s potential for liberty and the proud freedom of its Native people—while intentionally looking past their treatment of those same people. Pintard’s group would embrace this (imaginary) connection by hosting delegations from the Creek and Oneida nations on official visits, and posing as Tammany “braves” clad in faux Indian costume.
Pintard wanted to pair this vision of Tammany with someone linking back to a European (but not British) heritage, one without the Old World baggage—monarchy, religious oppression, constant war, suppression of science. He elevated Christopher Columbus, the European “discoverer” of the New World, and his fraternal group officially became known as the Tammany Society, or the Columbian Order. They organized an annual oration in Columbus’s honor, offering toasts to the man “who first planted the standard of Freedom on Western Shores.” Pintard wanted to plant Columbus in the public mind, as well, and the 300th anniversary of the explorer’s arrival in the Americas was his opportunity.
Largely ignored during the colonial era, Columbus had been deployed by American poets and orators as a symbolic figure around the Revolution. But Pintard’s marriage of Columbus with his society was an odd match. Their patriotic purpose was initially mixed with xenophobia and anti-Catholic sentiment. Full membership was reserved only for “American brethren of known attachment to the political rights of human nature and the liberties of their Country.” The Tammany Society sought to keep pro-British sympathies in check and to thwart “the machinations of those Slaves and Agents of foreign Despots.” Irish Catholic immigrants and Catholic nations like Spain ranked high on that list. How then did Columbus, an Italian Catholic in the employ of Catholic Spain, come to represent American liberty? The answer would be found on the monument that Pintard sought to create in time for the anniversary on October 12, 1792—the first public memorial to Columbus in the world.*
For John Pintard, a monument would cement (literally) Columbus’s place in the hearts and minds of his fellow Americans. But such public memorials were practically unknown in the early United States. One of the first acts of rebellion in 1776 had been to pull down and behead the statue of King George III in New York City. After the Revolution, Americans seemed averse to such displays. The only public monument at the time was Boston’s Beacon Hill Memorial Column, which commemorated the Revolution. Sixty feet high, it was a column of stone and brick topped with a gilded wooden eagle. Pintard sent word to Boston, specifically seeking costs and dimensions; his Columbus monument was to be on much the same scale.
When October 12, 1792, finally came, the Tammany Society staged a procession, an elaborate feast with toasts to the “United Columbian States,” and an oration exploring Columbus’s life. But it was the new monument that attracted the city’s attention. It was unveiled early in the day “to satisfy public curiosity.” But the monument, heralding the fourth “Columbian Century,” was far short of Pintard’s original intention. Standing only around 14 feet high and constructed of wood, it was painted to look like stone. This smaller monument did have its advantages. It was portable, allowing the Tammany Society to show it off all around town. Elaborate scenes from Columbus’s life were illuminated by lanterns from within, lit with an almost magical glow before the eyes of onlookers.
Those scenes depicted an almost magical transformation as well, turning Columbus from colonizing agent of Catholic Spain to a proto-American vanguard of liberty. On the obelisk, the figure of History pulled back a curtain, revealing moments from Columbus’s life. First, the spirit of Science instructs young Columbus in geometry and navigation. Next appears his expedition’s landing on the island of Guanahani, with Columbus’s men kneeling before him in “adoration” while Native peoples look on. The third scene shows the presentation of Columbus at the Spanish court after his return and the final panel found Columbus imprisoned by his former patrons, his chains inscribed with the words “The Ingratitude of Kings.” To comfort him, the spirit of Liberty directs his gaze into the future, pointing out the monument created in his honor. Above this, a soaring eagle clutches the motto “The Rights of Man,” while below, Native figures grieve at a memorial urn.
This was the Columbus that Pintard and others had crafted to fit American ambitions, a figure that bore little resemblance to historical reality. No exploitation was depicted here, no brutal birth of empire, no hint of a Catholic faith that the society, and most Americans, feared and abhorred. Here was a constructed Columbus who shared the Enlightenment era values of science and individualism, a leader beloved of Native Americans and Europeans alike, victimized by corrupt monarchs. A shining figure of liberty beamed directly at its audience.
The monument and its message remained on public display for several more years, the centerpiece of the museum Pintard had founded. Illuminated on special occasions, it became the focal point of annual commemorations until around 1800, when it disappeared after the museum passed to new owners. Only descriptions remain of this monument that had been created to sell a sanitized and enlightened Columbus to the American people. Despite the society’s efforts to install the “Great Navigator” in the American pantheon, the rest of America was slow to follow. Some Columbian tributes would be erected at the U.S. Capitol by the 1840s, including the Rotunda scene painted by John Vanderlyn, once a member of the Tammany Society. But by the 1892 anniversary, monuments to Columbus appeared more frequently, in some cases as an assertion of American citizenship by Catholic immigrants, something that would have likely dismayed John Pintard.
Pintard himself likely never saw his monument completed. Caught up in the first American stock market crash early in 1792, he was forced to flee New York to avoid his creditors. When he returned in 1800, his museum now sold and his patriotic society devolving into a political network, he would start over again in his efforts to preserve the nation’s history. Pintard founded the New-York Historical Society in 1804. And he started over again as an influencer, as well.
John Pintard began to publish tracts that popularized another Old World Catholic figure, one also wrapped in legend and tied to an annual celebration. He promoted him as a link to America’s cultural past while reshaping him for its future ambitions, just as he had with Columbus. Pintard’s choice this time around? St. Nicholas.
*The very first monument to Columbus was privately erected by Charles Francis Adrian le Paulmier Chevalier d’Anmour, a French consul, at his estate north of Baltimore. He commissioned a simple obelisk, some 40 feet in height, inscribed to the memory of Columbus, which was in place by August of 1792, two months ahead of the Tammany monument. Forgotten for nearly a century, the Chevalier d’Anmour’s now-relocated monument still stands, though like many such memorials, its association with Columbus is being reconsidered by the people of the city of Baltimore.
Tim Winkle is a curator in the museum's Division of Cultural and Community Life.