By the late 20th century, with Columbus 'the brand' losing its lustre and the grand admiral of the ocean a national embarrassment, it was only a matter of time before questions would be raised about the many monuments both of the man himself and his girlish alter-ego, Columbia.
The trouble is that these symbolise much more than the story of the individual depicted. They also represent the acceptance of Catholicism in America and the legacy of an Italian-American community, which included impoverished immigrants like Baltimore labourer Tommaso D'Alesandro, whose granddaughter Nancy is House Speaker and a particular bête noire of Donald Trump.
The Columbus myth had momentum, however. Well into the late 20th century, some believed that more statue raising asserted the significance of Italian-Americanism and Catholicism in the creation of modern America, integrating Italian ethnicity into the national foundation myth. This hadn't always been easy. Anti-Italian prejudice led to the 1891 lynching of 11 Italians in St Louis, while Pope Leo XIII had unhelpfully issued an 1899 encyclical denouncing 'Americanism'.
Italian pride was again put to the test in 1927 when two immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were executed for murder on evidence so flimsy that, 50 years later, Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis inaugurated 'Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day'. Italian-Americans had also suffered image problems thanks to the rise of a few crime families in the prohibition era and fascist Italy's role in the Second World War.
Statues encapsulated an excessive 'corrective' enthusiasm over much of the 20th century. Baltimore's recently toppled third monument to Columbus was raised as late as 1984. Philadelphia, too, has three Columbus monuments, all now boarded up for their protection, with the oldest, dating from the 1876 International Exhibition, destined for removal to make the space around it 'safe and inclusive'. The most recent, by modernist architect Robert Venturi, appeared in 1992 at Penn's Landing.
Boston's 1979 Columbus statue was another latecomer, its story complicated by the extreme right-wing views of the man who paid for it. It has since been beheaded, covered in graffiti, and removed by the council.
New York City has at least four Columbus statues, two relatively close together at Central Park and Columbus Circle. The one outside Brooklyn's New York State Supreme Court was the subject of a recent petition launched by a group calling itself 'The People' which attracted a mere 500 signatures in favour of removal. This suggests that those who vociferously demand the removal of such statues are hardly representative of 'The People' in any meaningful statistical sense. The actual people, it seems, are less than thrilled at a prospect of a civic heritage cull. This was certainly the case in Britain, where a petition to haul down Robert Peel's Manchester statue attracted 1,838 signatures, while a counter petition to leave it where it is drew just under 17,000.
There can be good reasons for editing out certain statues from the public arena. The white supremacist Confederate generals of Richmond's Monument Avenue, most notoriously, were traitors to the Union whose intimidating presence simply cannot be objectively justified. Why on earth were they put up in the first place?
There is room for ambivalence with Texas Governor 'Big Jim' Hogg. While certainly a conservative, during his period in office (which began around 30 years after the end of the Civil War) he tried to have oil baron John D Rockefeller extradited from New York on criminal charges, and was an avid tree planter. Not all bad, then. His effigy was regarded with droll affection on the Austin campus since he had named his daughter 'Ima', and a second (probably mythical) daughter 'Ura', which didn't stop the university de-plinthing him in 2017. They then changed their minds, voting to reinstate him the following year. His offence, it seems, was that his father, who died when he was 10 years old, had fought with the Confederate Army.
At least Big Jim's likeness had a happier fate than that of another by the same sculptor, the Italian immigrant Pompeo Coppini, whose George Washington statue in Portland Oregon was pulled down, doused in fuel and set alight in June of this year.
Speaker Pelosi's take on such vigilante vandalism is one of passive support based on a lack of sentimentalism which includes a quirky declaration that she isn't interested in wearing her grandmother's earrings. 'I don't care that much about statues,' she shrugged nonchalantly at a press briefing, asked about the destruction of Baltimore's Columbus statue. The city's African American Democrat mayor, by contrast, stated that those responsible for the destruction of the statue should be arrested.
Andrew Cuomo, like his fellow Democrat Ms Pelosi (the daughter of a distinguished Mayor of Baltimore), is a blue-chip politician – he was married to a Kennedy at one time. His views are well noted, and on this issue differ markedly from the Speaker's: 'The Christopher Columbus statue represents the Italian-American legacy in this country [and] has come to represent and signify an appreciation the Italian-American contribution to New York, and for that reason I support it'.
An aspect of this cleansing of public space which rarely comes up is its effect on the nation's cultural patrimony in art-historical terms. They are by no means all great works of art, but many are, and with around 200 destroyed or removed by craven city bosses, America's artistic heritage is much diminished.
A sad case in point is a remarkably fine statuary group of Columbus and Queen Isabella in Sacramento's California State Legislature, removed only a few weeks ago. Carved in his Florentine studios by expatriate American sculptor Larkin Goldsmith Meade between 1868 and 1874, and installed in the Capitol's rotunda in 1883, it is by any measure a stunning work of public art, whatever its subject.
In a way, it's a bit like removing Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks
from London's National Gallery to avoid offending atheists, yet we must sympathise with the logic. Better, on balance, to move Meade's masterpiece to a museum where it would be protected and cause less offence. Moreover, the decision to evict it was taken democratically, which is always better than a mob reducing it to rubble, as the Taliban did with the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. Nevertheless, its departure is a loss to California's public realm, just like all the other statues and monuments swept from the streets and parks of America since the killing of George Floyd.
A justified anger over the deaths of black Americans at police hands must inevitably bring protesters on to the streets – who could expect otherwise? But the fact that the cause is just does not mean the effect will be to resolve the problem, particularly if a small minority (despite the heartfelt pleas of the majority, including some of those directly involved, like the mother of Jacob Blake) resorts to mayhem and violence.
Much of middle America, given its penchant for apocalyptic disaster movies and Marvel Comics, reacts with visceral fear at the sight of burning streets and looters on the rampage. Nancy Pelosi's refusal to condemn those who destroyed Baltimore’s Columbus statue will not re-assure in an election year. It won't play well either with her own ethnic community, including those in Philadelphia (some reportedly armed) who stood guard over their sculptural heritage when it was under threat.
The nightly scenes of violence are already registering. Rasmussen Reports, which predicted the 2016 result, has the candidates neck-and-neck. CNN's Don Lemon, an African American, has urged Joe Biden 'to stand at a podium in DC' and condemn the violence outright. He also discussed the matter on air with co-anchor Chris Cuomo, brother of Andrew: 'Chris, as you know and I know, it's showing up in the polls, it's showing up in the focus groups'.
With the Trump 'law and order' focus boosted by TV coverage of toppled statues, armed stand-offs, and burning buildings, Biden's lead is falling. For the right, fear and panic is the key to a second electoral victory, to the delight of strategists like Roger Stone. The fear is being stoked up. The Daily Wire's Michael Knowles, who is so far to the right they're even reluctant to interview him on Fox News, faked a website image of a graffiti-daubed smashed up Lincoln memorial statue. By the time he admitted it was fabricated, it had gone viral – no doubt just as he'd intended.
The timidity of leading Democrats when it comes to condemning violence in the streets – something which leaves many African Americans like Don Lemon in despair – could yet have a dramatic outcome. This Pelosian aloofness gives Donald Trump the space to stand in front of Mount Rushmore and declare himself the guardian of America's history and heritage.
That's absurd, of course. In 1980, the same man destroyed important sculpted panels at the historic department store which was about to make way for Trump Tower after they had been promised to the Metropolitan Museum; and it was his father, Fred, who, in 1966, had showgirls provide bricks to guests to lob at the stained glass of Coney Island's Steeplechase Park Pavilion just before its National Landmark designation.
The pollsters who got it wrong last time are now confident that Trump will lose. I wouldn't be so sure. I was at Hillary's great pre-election rally in New York's Javits Center in 2016 when the results came through. The sight of thousands of shocked people bursting into tears simultaneously is not easily forgotten.
Nancy Pelosi's open indifference to the mob's destruction of Baltimore's Columbus statue might yet, like Hillary Clinton's disastrous 'deplorables' description of white working-class voters, rankle just enough to deliver a critical edge to Trump.
So while we know that Christopher Columbus did not actually discover America, could he yet have a hand in destroying it?
For Part 2 of David Black's three-part series, click here
For Part 1, click here