Today we may hastily ponder what is in some ways still treated as a national holiday: the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing, as leader of three ships, on a Caribbean island on October 12, 1492. In Lincoln’s day this was not a holiday. Only New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July (not even Christmas or Easter) were ongoing ‘official’ holidays.
But in Lincoln’s mind, the occasion of that landing and all that followed it were of the greatest moment. Having jettisoned further publication of his poems after 1846, he turned to less-personal matters. In September 1848 he saw Niagara Falls, and tried to grasp its historical context:
“When Columbus first sought this continent — when Christ suffered on the cross — when Moses led Israel through the Red-Sea … Niagara was roaring here.”
Then, in giving his lectures ‘Discoveries and Inventions’ in 1858 and 1859, he explicitly cited the 1492 voyage of discovery. Revising this talk, he prepared what came to be two distinct lectures, because, it is thought today, he was giving up hope of higher elective office and wanted to be a travelling lecturer. Or, perhaps his mind flagged from the tedium of the law, and he sought a fresh outlet for his intellect.
In any case, Christopher Columbus (he took the Spanish cognate Cristóbal Colón after 1485) was much on Lincoln’s mind as he wrestled with what the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Dred Scott decision of 1857 meant for the future of his nation. He gave his lectures a half-dozen times around central Illinois, to audiences not large; then dropped the matter and returned to politics and law.
Here he lays it out as plainly as we could wish. He probably believed the following as early as April 1858, and certainly by February 1859. By Lincoln’s compass,
“in the world’s history, certain inventions and discoveries occurred, of peculiar value, on account of their great efficiency in facilitating all other inventions and discoveries. Of these were the arts of writing and of printing — the discovery of America, and the introduction of Patent-laws. The date of the first … is unknown; but it certainly was as much as fifteen hundred years before the Christian era; the second — printing — came in 1436, or nearly three thousand years after the first. The others followed more rapidly — the discovery of America in 1492, and the first patent laws in 1624.”
Can it be any clearer how a man, who missed the American Revolution yet often urged his contemporaries to uphold its principles, viewed the “discovery” of America? It was of an importance to progress — to invention, to further discovery, to efficiency — behind only the invention of writing and printing.
If Lincoln’s view does not comport with polite received opinion today, he did not predict our future, but instead carried on in like vein. “Though not apposite to my present purpose, it is but justice to the fruitfulness of that period, to mention two other important events — the Lutheran Reformation in 1517, and, still earlier, the invention of negroes, or, of the present mode of using them, in 1434. But, to return to the consideration of printing …”
The image of Columbus stuck in his mind; he used it twice in his campaign against Douglas in September 1858. First at Paris, Illinois, in the eastern part of the state: “The idea of Popular Sovereignty was floating about the world several ages before the author of the Nebraska bill saw daylight — indeed, before Columbus set foot on the American continent.” Lincoln repeated this sarcastic gibe word for word for the benefit of those in the western part of the state, at Edwardsville, on September 11th.
Thereafter we have no evidence that he wrote or spoke about the Genoese-born sailor. His reasons to write the word ‘Columbus’ in 1860 through 1865 all concern the capital city of Ohio, or the small town in western Kentucky much fought over by warring Federals and Confederates. Yet today we may imagine that in Lincoln’s own voyage of discovery — to the heart of the American experiment, in his war against the ‘popular sovereignty’ fiction that Douglas tried to impose upon the construction of the Constitution, for a new way to “invent” a role for negroes outside of Africa — he continued to ponder the fearlessness and hope that those sailors possessed.