Elite Revisionists and Popular Beliefs: Christopher Columbus, Hero or Villain?
By Howard Schuman, Barry Schwartz and Hannag D’Arc
Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 1 (2005)
Abstract: According to revisionist historians and American Indian activists, Christopher Columbus deserves condemnation for having brought slavery, disease, and death to America’s indigenous peoples. We ask whether the general public’s beliefs about Columbus show signs of reflecting these critical accounts, which increased markedly as the 1992 Quincentenary approached. Our national surveys, using several different question wordings, indicate that most Americans continue to admire Columbus because, as tradition puts it, “he discovered America,” though only a small number of mainly older respondents speak of him in the heroic terms common in earlier years. At the same time, the percentage of Americans who reject traditional beliefs about Columbus is also small and is divided between those who simply acknowledge the priority of Indians as the “First Americans” and those who go further to view Columbus as a villain. The latter group of respondents, we find, show a critical stance toward modal American beliefs much more broadly.
We also analyze American history school textbooks for evidence of influence from revisionist writings, and we consider representations of Columbus in the mass media as well. Revisionist history can be seen as one consequence of the “minority rights revolution” that began after World War II and has achieved considerable success, but the endurance of Columbus’s reputation—to a considerable extent even among the minorities who have the least reason to respect him—raises important questions about the inertia of tradition, the politics of collective memory, and the difference between elite and popular beliefs.