Edward Everett Hale (1822–1909), Unitarian minister and antislavery activist, was a prolific author of stories, essays, and poems, many on patriotic themes. A lifelong patriot, Hale was born into a family of active Americans: He was the nephew both of Edward Everett, renowned orator and statesman, and of Alexander Hill Everett, the American diplomat who invited Washington Irving to Spain, where he wrote about Columbus. Hale’s father, Nathan Hale, was the namesake and nephew of Nathan Hale, executed by the British for espionage during the Revolutionary War and famous for his last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
In 1882, Hale visited Spain to conduct research on Columbus and his travels, writing his biography on the explorer—The Life of Christopher Columbus: From His Own Letters and Journals—in time to be released for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery. The following selection, a poem in which he presents a novel view of the reason for, and the meaning of, Columbus’ voyages, comes from his 1903 collection of songs and poetry, New England History in Ballads. Who is it that says, “Give me white paper!” Why is it needed? What, in this poem, is the distinctive virtue of Columbus, and why does he sail? What, according to Hale, is the purpose of America?