Today is the 77th anniversary of the federal government making Columbus Day a holiday.
To be sure, Americans celebrated October 12 long before 1937. In 1792, for example, there was a nationwide tribute throughout cities and towns, and the big shebang came in 1892, with the World’s Fair in Chicago the site of the 400th
anniversary. The Columbian Exposition, as it was dubbed in the Windy City, was a massive tribute, so big that it didn’t open until May 1893, drawing 27 million visitors in its six-month existence. Almost 50 nations had exhibits, and praiseful renditions of the explorer in various languages abounded.
But the holiday has fallen on hard times in recent years. With congressional legislation in 1968, it’s now part of the Monday holiday scheme, meaning that it could fall on a date removed from actual history, such as October 8. Four states (Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon and South Dakota), don’t recognize Columbus Day.
Even the quincentennial celebration on October 12, 1992, was a downer for Columbus, highlighted by a conference in Davis, California, that dubbed the
occasion an “International Day of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples.”
And the National Council of Churches, the largest evangelical body in the nation, urged that Columbus Day not be observed.
Worse, there’s a movement now afoot in parts of Colorado — the first state to establish the holiday in 1905 — to give Columbus obscurity in guidelines for the American history curriculum by concentrating — get this — on the years before he came, as if sources are plentiful to write such a stirring chronicle.
Lending insult to injury was President Barack Obama’s appointment last year of
a task force of college professors, politicians and business leaders
to determine whether Columbus Day should be scrapped. Each task force
member was to write a one-to-two-page, double-spaced retort to the
question: “Christopher Columbus : Hero or Villain?” Members were given
several documents by defenders and opponents in order to make their
decision. I’m serious.
Of course, the reason that Columbus is now vilified by some Americans is that he is associated with exploiting Indians, bringing disease to the New World and enslaving peoples in the wake of his discoveries.
The tragedy of such thinking is that it violates one of the sacrosanct standards of the historical method, namely, avoidance of present-mindedness. This standard has been inculcated into American classrooms from earliest times, that is, it’s a lesson to avoid using the values of today to judge a historical event rather than the values that existed at the time of the event.
Teachers test present-mindedness by giving youngsters, for instance, a pictorial
rendition of a famous person such as George Washington, the president seated at a desk in appropriate dress for the period, with a quill pen, blotter, and thick writing paper. For a contemporary youngster, there might be, in addition, something that couldn’t have been around in GW’s time, such as a TV. And the student would be asked to determine what is wrong with the portrayal?
Such is the error that contemporary historians make about Columbus by employing today’s values instead of those at the time. Superiority of peoples and harsh treatment of subordinate ones were standard values in Columbus’s time. That these harsh values were mitigated — and at what pace and degree — in favor of more humane ones comprise the relevant historical barometers. And most Americans, at least until recent political-correctness unfolded, could recognize not only that fact but the advantageous aspects of Columbus’s
discovery at that time.
Nor do the Columbus naysayers recognize that, over decades of history, his name has been honorably attached to so many aspects of American life. Not only cities, towns and counties but monuments (the first in nearby Baltimore in 1792), the circle in New York City that typifies the bustling and successful nature of America’s economic system and the District of Columbia, the very seat of our federal government? Are we to eliminate these hallmarks in the quest for
Fortunately, there are still remnants of Columbus Day celebrations in the United States, as illustrated by the 35,000 marchers in the annual New York City parade. But for many areas of life, today is business as usual. Some schools are open, the New York Stock Exchange operates as usual, and your FedEx package will, in
fact, be delivered today on a usual Monday schedule.
Ironically, Columbus Day celebrations are more lively in Latin America, the
Bahamas and Caribbean, Spain and Italy that still have a connection to the explorer, in spite of the more significant leadership role that the United States has played in the wake of 1492.
Columbus, in sum, is sailing off the holiday map in a nation that once respected his historic role.
Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.