Wednesday, April 25, 2007

America's 500th Birthday

Today is America’s 500th birthday—by one calculus, at least. We learn this from Bradley S. Klapper of the Associated Press, in an article at

An obscure cartographer, Martin Waldseemueller, is credited with publishing on April 25, 1507, in St. Die, France (described as a “backwater French court”), the first map of the world naming the Western Hemisphere “America.” The map is regarded as the first “to depict a separate Western Hemisphere and a separate Pacific Ocean.”

The map named the hemisphere in honor of Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian who “discovered” the new world shortly after Columbus. Although Columbus got to the new world first, he set out thinking it was Asia he would find. When he died in 1506, he still believed that all four of his voyages had been to Asia.

Unlike Columbus, Vespucci sailed along the north and east coasts of South America and correctly identified the new world as a previously unknown land mass. Waldseemueller argued that Amerigo should be honored as the first to grasp the significance of their discovery.

As a student of Alfred North Whitehead, I was primed to pay special attention to this article. Whitehead was fond of citing Columbus as an example of the unexpected tricks and turns creativity can take. While teaching at Harvard in 1933, Whitehead found it fascinating that Columbus had started out searching for one continent, but then found another he’d never imagined.

In Adventures of Ideas Whitehead said: “Before Columbus set sail for America, he had dreamt of the far East, and of the round world, and of the trackless ocean. Adventure rarely reaches its predetermined end. Columbus never reached China. But he discovered America.”

Well, not exactly. Today’s information puts Columbus’ discovery in a much different light.

Yes, he risked his life in the conviction that the earth is a globe and if you sailed it west from Europe, you’d one day reach another continent. And he should be celebrated for being right.

Yet in the giddiness of actually finding the new land mass, Columbus was so much a prisoner of his own thought processes that he could not imagine a continent other than Asia. It took Vespucci, possibly with more information and certainly with a more accurate imagination, to truly discover “America.”

The lesson is endlessly instructive. We need to keep discovering. We need to set out courageously to seek what we hope to find. And when we say eureka, we have found it, we may be right. But it may turn out that we have not found “it” at all. And in rare and hugely important occasions, we may learn that we have been blessed to discover “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Happy 500th birthday, America!

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