The Value of Knowledge
So what about our notions of historical truth? Here too, we find that historical fact, like scientific fact, is also imperfect and dependent on the reliability of historical evidence. The historical processes by which ideas become common knowledge are often intentionally opaque. Voltaire said that history is a pack of tricks we play on the dead. One example of that is Columbus Day. Many Americans still believe Christopher Columbus discovered America and celebrate his success on Columbus Day. Scholars today know that he did not ever set foot in America, landing instead on the Caribbean island known as Hispaniola. The Viking explorer Leif Ericson landed in Newfoundland a millennium before, and in July 1497, the Venetian explorer Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) left Bristol, England in search of Asia and a month later, on August 6, landed in Newfoundland. How did Columbus become celebrated as the discoverer of America, but not Ericson or Caboto? The answer is that the United States Columbus Day holiday did not come to be as a result of accurate historical remembrance but rather from lobbying by different vested interests. The newly liberated colonists needed a heroic symbol but could not choose John Cabot, as he flew the British flag. In 1792, the colonists celebrated Columbus’ hundredth anniversary of landing in the “Americas.” Hence, Columbus and Cabot, two minor characters in history, suddenly entered the limelight.
A first-generation Italian-American, Angelo Noce of Denver, Colorado, lobbied to consider Columbus Day a national holiday, and finally, in April 1934, the Knights of Columbus successfully urged Franklin D. Roosevelt to declare October 12 a national holiday.
Another instance of constructed history was in scientific history. In the late 19th century, two battles raged within the discipline of engineering physics, whose victor was to determine the course of history. First, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, inventors of the DC and AC power distribution system respectively, and second William Rowan Hamilton’s Quaternions vs. Josiah Willard Gibbs in the field of vector algebras were both unknowingly going to have a profound effect on our live today.
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