Rediscovering America

Skeptics Circle

If there’s an area which requires nearly as much skepticism as science and pseudoscience, it’s history. Historical revisionism can be caused by simple errors or by malice aforethought. The classic case of the latter is of course Holocaust denial.

But let’s look at a more benign example. Consider if you will the discovery of “the New World”. All over the USA Christopher Columbus is celebrated as the discoverer of America; he has schools named after him, he even has his own national holiday. Alongside him is Amerigo Vespucci who holds the impressive distinction of having two continents named after him. Do they deserve these credits?

Christopher Columbus was a pretty lousy explorer. He spent most of the time on his famous journeys wandering around the West Indies convinced he was somewhere near Japan. He even threatened to cut the tongues out of any of his men who said otherwise. He failed to realise Cuba was an island and thought the native people were asian, hence the term Indians. He returned to spain with almost no booty from his voyage. He was eventually stripped of his admiralty and died in complete obscurity.

OK, so he was a bit of a loser, but he was still the first European to set foot on the New World, right? Well no, not really. It is well documented that Leif Erikson, a viking, settled in Greenland about 500 years before Columbus stumbled into Cuba. There is also documentation to suggest that Leif ventured further west, possibly as far as what is now Virginia although nobody is really sure. Christopher Columbus never actually set foot on what is now the USA.

As for Amerigo, yes he did make some journeys to the Americas, probably two, but only as a passenger. Some probably fraudulent letters appeared in his hometown of Florence claiming he had captained the ship and discovered the New World. These letters were picked up by a cartographer who was making a new map to include the newly discovered continents. Taking the letters at face value he used the feminine latin form of Amerigo’s name to name the new land masses. And so they became the Americas. Amerigo also never, as far as we know for sure, set foot on what is now the USA.

But I guess The United States of Leif doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Some other USA myths:

  • The Pilgrims did not land on Plymouth Rock
  • James Otis never said “Taxation without representation is tyranny”
  • Betsy Ross probably had nothing to do with creating the new flag
  • Thomas Jefferson didn’t really want to write the Declaration of Independence, and when he did it was partially plagiarised and heavily edited by the Committee of Five
  • Independence was declared on July 2nd, and the Declaration was read out on July 8th (with no accompaniment from the Liberty Bell) and signed gradually over the following months. Nothing very exciting happened on July 4th

One thought on “Rediscovering America”

  1. Just a nit – but actually something did happen on July 4th – The declaration was ratified by the second continental congress. Thus rendering the declaration an official statement of the congress. It obviously took several drafts to create a document that the congress approved. But when, on July 4th, they did approve it, it become an official statement.
    Since the declaration contains the following statement:We, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in GENERAL CONGRESS, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES.
    The date of ratification of the declaration is thus the date the United States came into being.

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