America’s Birth Certificate

by John J. Miller on August 3, 2010 · 0 comments

in Articles,Culture

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WALL STREET JOURNAL
July 25, 2003

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JOHN J. MILLER

Nearly five centuries ago, an obscure mapmaker outlined an image of the New World and wrote down a name for it: “America.”

Yesterday Martin Waldseemuller’s 1507 map of the world went on public display at the Library of Congress for the first time. Some maps lead to treasure, but this one cost a fortune: In June, the library completed a $10 million purchase from a German owner. Half the money came from the private sector, including a hefty donation from the Discovery Channel. Taxpayers hold the rest of the bill.

That’s a lot of cash for an old map, especially at a time when the federal budget is sailing toward terra incognita and one of the library’s prominent neighbors, the Smithsonian Institution, has seen its own fund-raising revenues dwindle. Is collecting costly maps a wise use of public money or just cultural pork?

Assembled from 12 panels and covering a 36-square-foot area, the map itself is impressive — an arresting combination of cartography and artistry. It’s the only copy known to have survived from the 16th century, and it will stand in a special exhibition until October, when curators will replace it with a facsimile and build a permanent display for the original.

A press release calls it “the first map, printed or manuscript, to depict clearly a separate Western Hemisphere, with the Pacific as a separate ocean.” James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, adds his own flourish: “The map, giving our hemisphere its name for the first time, will be the keystone of the Library’s unparalleled collection of maps and atlases.”

Too bad that none of this is exactly true. Although the map has been called “America’s birth certificate,” it may not have been the first at anything.

What the Library of Congress doesn’t acknowledge in its promotional literature is that Waldseemuller was a busy guy in 1507. He produced not only the map now on view in Washington but also a set of woodcuts that are meant to wrap around a ball and form a globe. These “globe gores” also show North America, South America and the Pacific Ocean — and they, too, include the word “America.”

Several experts believe that Waldseemuller made his globe gores shortly before he produced the big wall map. This is the assumption of Silvio Bedini’s authoritative “Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia,” as well as John Noble Wilford’s popular guide, “The Mapmakers.”

Only two of the globe gores survive today, one at the University of Minnesota’s James Ford Bell Library. “We’ve had our globe gores for 50 years,” says Susan Steckel, a curator there. “We show them to anybody who asks to see them.”

Perhaps it takes a cartography buff to get riled up over which map came first. The ultimate difference may be little more than the difference between twins: One must be born before the other, but both come from the same mother and arrive at about the same time.

The fact that there is a brood, however, makes the $10 million map seem a bit less precious, and even overpriced. It remains important, but may not be the blockbuster that the library wants us to think it is, or at least not for the stated reasons.

The exhibit featuring the wall map leaves out the part of the story concerning the map’s main claim to fame: its invention of the word “America.”

Modern-day mapmakers protect their copyrights by drawing “trap streets” into their work, such as a fake cul-de-sac in a suburban neighborhood. If a competitor copies the phony detail, its authors will know they’ve been ripped off. All the maps Waldseemuller produced in 1507 contain an important error, though it’s an honest mistake rather than a deception: “America” never should have appeared on any of them.

As most high-school students learn — or used to learn — the word comes from the name of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512). Yet Vespucci was a magnificent liar — he was the Age of Exploration’s Jayson Blair, and Waldseemuller was his dupe. The Fraud of Florence claimed to have participated in a pair of transatlantic voyages that never took place and inflated his role in two that did.

Yet he had the cunning to do something his superiors neglected: He wrote about his trips, both real and pretend, and took credit for achievements that properly belong to people who don’t have continents named after them, such as Alonso de Ojeda and Juan de la Cosa — to say nothing of Columbus, whose exploits of 1492 were not fully appreciated when Waldseemuller groped for a place name.

Vespucci’s duplicity has been known for some time. “Strange that . . . broad America must wear the name of a thief,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1856. The Library of Congress doesn’t deny this offbeat backstory so much as ignore it, perhaps in an effort to bathe its expensive acquisition in a glow of patriotism, as if it were the cartographic equivalent of the Declaration of Independence.

To be sure, “America” has a nice ring and it neatly corresponds with Latinate terms like “Africa” and “Asia,” which were already established when Waldseemuller decided to create a new word for the New World. Maybe we should simply be grateful that the mapmaker lacked Vespucci’s gigantic ego, because at least we aren’t stuck living in the United States of Waldseemulleria.

By any other name, America would still be what it is today — and perhaps Waldseemuller’s 1507 maps would be most appreciated for a striking detail that appears on all of them: the kink in the Pacific coastline of South America, at the place where the present-day borders of Chile and Peru meet.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa is widely recognized as the first European to gaze upon the Pacific Ocean — in 1513, from what is now Panama. Yet Waldseemuller somehow managed to draw the most prominent geographic feature of South America’s west coast six years earlier and at almost precisely the correct latitude. Was this just dumb luck or did the mapmaker have access to a lost source?

Now that’s an interesting question, and it’s one that the Library of Congress may help to answer — perhaps at the academic conference it hopes to sponsor in a few years. What is certain is that the public will keep on paying for Waldseemuller’s map well into the uncharted future.

Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.

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