Christopher Columbus has been knocked down several pegs over the years. Once celebrated as America’s discoverer, his name today is bound up with violence, colonialism, greed, and racism. Not surprisingly, many feel deep reservations about celebrating a day named for him.
But Columbus Day has never really been about Columbus. Instead, as its origin story makes clear, it celebrates America’s capacity for something Columbus himself was never known for: inclusion.
In the mid-nineteenth century, many Americans perceived a threat to their national racial and religious identity. New immigrants—from eastern and southern Europe, as well as from Portugal and Ireland—were arriving on American shores. They were swarthy and spoke strange languages. They worshipped differently than the native Protestant majority. And they were coming in droves. Between 1880 and 1910, a nation of fewer than 100 million saw the arrival of more than six million Irish and nearly two million Italians.
Nativists had deep reservations about the quality of the “racial stock” of these immigrants. Their bigger concern, however, was with the faith of these new arrivals, as Catholic loyalties were presumed to lie several thousand miles across the Atlantic—in Rome. The Know-Nothing movement that sprang up before the Civil War, for instance, was founded in large part “to resist the insidious policy of the Church of Rome and all other foreign influence.” It sent dozens of its members to Congress.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that these new arrivals posed no real threat. Irish, Italians, and others were soon woven into the fabric of American life. So much so that historical attacks on them now seem fairly absurd. At the time, however, it was a genuine public debate, not unlike the one we are having today, about whether particular racial and religious groups should be allowed in, and if so, under what conditions. The question of the past, in other words, is the question of the present: who can be an American?
Like today’s immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities in the nineteenth century were desperate to prove that they belonged. And one of the chief strategies deployed by Catholics of the time was to invoke the name of Columbus—then still celebrated as America’s discoverer. As an 1878 editorial in the Connecticut Catholic put it: no one was more deserving “of grateful remembrance than the great and noble man—the pious, zealous, faithful Catholic … Christopher Columbus.” Further playing up the connection to America’s “discoverer,” American Catholics created a feast day in Columbus’s honor, named schools and hospitals after him, and named their largest fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus. They also sponsored Columbus-themed festivities and parades: San Francisco’s Italians celebrated their first “Discovery Day” in 1869, and celebrations soon followed in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston, and New Orleans.
Eventually, these efforts began to bear fruit. Rather than demonizing Catholic immigrants as alien interlopers, savvy politicians soon began pandering for their votes. The 1892 Republican Party platform, for example, included an endorsement of Irish home rule—a symbolic gesture if ever there was one. And the candidate at the top of their ticket, sitting-President Benjamin Harrison, declared a national celebration of “Discovery Day”—honoring Columbus on the 400th anniversary of his voyage—just three weeks before voters went to the polls.
Harrison lost his bid for reelection. But “Discovery Day” lived on. In 1905, Colorado Governor Jesse F. McDonald declared the first official non-centennial Columbus Day—a practice soon taken up by other states. Thirty years later, at the urging of the Knights of Columbus, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress made Columbus Day a federal holiday. Catholics in general, and Irish and Italians specifically, had earned recognition of their Americanness.
This history has been largely forgotten. But that is because it is a success story. Long gone are the days when Italians and Irish were viewed as “unassimilable.” And many decades have passed since Catholics were suspected of harboring divided loyalties.
It is somewhat ironic, then, that many of those most troubled by the celebration of Columbus Day—Berkeley, for instance, renamed it “Indigenous People’s Day” in the 1990s—are perhaps most likely to embrace its true meaning: that anyone can be an American. This is not a defense of Columbus; a renaming of the day would be well-warranted. It is, instead, a defense of the gleaming idea lurking beneath the tarnish—the idea of e pluribus unum.
In a hotly contested presidential election, and during a time of demographic change, it is not surprising that anxieties about national identity have been re-awoken. But if history teaches us anything, it is that those presently portrayed as a threat will, in the future, be accepted as full-fledged Americans. Yet the past teaches us something darker, as well: that when today’s hateful speech is forgotten, it will bloom again—directed at someone else. We must not forget, then, that we are not only a nation of immigrants, but also a nation that has repeatedly wrestled with nativism and resisted it, always coming out stronger.