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Was Columbus a Jew? and Other Tales of Political In-Correctness in American Textbooks

October 12th, the Discovery. It was nice to have known America, it might have been better not to.--Mark Twain, Puddenhead Wilson  

Twain was too early to have to deal with "political correctness," but we must now say it is 513 years since Columbus "encountered" America. The recent death of Simon Wiesenthal, the great Nazi hunter, who was a famous fan of the view that Cristobal Colon was a Jew, reminded me of my own views on that theory, which occurred along with my own first "encounter" with political correctness.

In 1975, I was asked by Robert Hoffman, a publisher himself, and the son of Sylvan Hoffman, the originator of an American history in the format of a newspaper, News of the Nation, to become the Associate Editor of a new edition of the book. The first edition, published in 1953 had been a Book-of-the-Month selection, the subject of high praise in a "My Day" column by Eleanor Roosevelt, and had sold widely as a textbook as well.

The publisher, Prentice-Hall, sent me a book containing all of the politically correct grammar already in vogue by then. I cut out about a third of the old edition, added new pieces on cultural and social history, as well as bringing the book up to date, I had, beyond Bob, about a half dozen various editors at P-H, who were looking over all of the hundreds of articles I produced.

Amazingly, there were only two of my articles that caused a bit of a controversy. One detailed how after the War with Mexico, Hispanics in the southwest had been deprived of their property, and the efforts of the Justice Dept. to rectify that injustice. It was deemed too permeated with notions of Marxism and class conflict. I gave in to the majority when it became clear that they had no understanding of libertarian class theory and property rights.

The second involved Colón. The first edition carried a story entitled, "Fourteen Italian Cities Claim Columbus," which I suggested be replaced by a piece called "Was Columbus a Jew? I was especially excited by the opportunity this offered in the Teacher's Guide to introduce the teachers to some of the exciting literature that existed on this subject. Most of the editors were themselves Jews, but I was again overridden, not because my research was wrong, but because no one wanted to offend any Italian-American readers. Oh well, 2 out of maybe 400 ain't bad!

For those in doubt about the question of Columbus, I recommend, especially, Salvador de Madariaga's classic, Christopher Columbus; Being the Life of the Very Magnificent Lord, Don Cristóbal Colon (1940), but, these days try Googling "Columbus+Jews" as well, along with other variations. In the turmoil of the Inquisition, Colón's family had left Spain for Genoa, but he continued to use Spanish and as a young man fought with the French against Genoa.

He began his diary at the time of the expulsion of the Jews early in 1492, and his log was later kept in the Jewish calendar. It was the Jewish bankers around Ferdinand, himself of Jewish ancestry, who financed the expedition with a motive of finding some opportunity for the Jews. Sephardics did come to the New World, and it is perhaps no accident that the Cubans were known as the Jews of the Caribbean.

My point is not to attempt to build that case here, that has been done in a number of books, but to ask, why has this information, even as controversy, not made its way into American textbooks? I am less concerned with political correctness than with correct accuracy.

The same thing is true, for example, with one of the central events in our history, the American Revolution. David McCullough has just published a book, 1776, detailing the military events of that year. In testimony before the Congress, and in a number of radio and television appearances, he has complained about the poor quality of American textbooks, arguing that we need more good, narrative history to catch the interest of our students.

I would not argue with that, assuming the facts are correct, but would only add that the real problem is a lack of perspective. McCullough needs to begin by examining his own statements and assumptions. It is a trivial error to refer to Abigail Adams and the historian, Mercy Otis Warren, as "good friends," when they were actually also cousins, but one expects accuracy from someone who wrote a book on Abigail and her husband.

In each of those same appearances, and in his recent book, he noted, one time mentioning John Adams's name, that only a minority of the American people supported the Revolution. Nowhere does he ever document that statement. If that were true, then the Revolution was simply an elite coup. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest otherwise, but McCullough is just plain wrong in attributing that one-third notion to John Adams, although it is found in a number of American books, even recent ones.

In News of the Nation we devoted an article to refuting that idea, based upon an article I had done earlier, "The American Revolution and the Minority Myth."

In short, there is a great deal more deplorable about American textbooks than how they deal with Evolution! We might start by dealing honestly about who Colón really was, as well as the nature of the American Revolution. Until historians begin to do so, it is useless to complain about the historical ignorance of a public that is susceptible to the incredible historical mendacity of so many of our political leaders.