A brief defense of a quintessentially American holiday.
Columbus Day has largely been a minor national holiday with deep local roots since it was federally recognized in 1971. It was first celebrated long before that, however. Starting off in New York City in 1792 as a commemoration of the 300th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, the holiday has kept this identity over the centuries but has also been adopted as a celebration of Italian-American heritage. Most people think of it as the one day off from school in October before the deluge of holidays in November and December. Recently, it has gained in prominence – or infamy – due to a progressive crusade to label Columbus a genocidaire and to rechristen the holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. These campaigners accuse Columbus of perpetuating a deliberate genocide of native peoples and label the European interaction with the New World as irredeemably bad. This activist campaign has gained ground over the past decade and several states have officially changed their calendars accordingly. As useful and proper as it is to memorialize the contributions of Native Americans to the United States, the defenestration of Columbus Day is a terrible mistake. In many ways, Columbus Day is itself a perfect encapsulation of our amazing country and its evolution over the centuries into a “more perfect union.”
Before discussing the uniquely American character of Columbus Day, it is necessary to combat some of the more spurious historical arguments used to denigrate Columbus and European involvement in the Americas as a whole. The biggest claim that often comes up in negative portrayals of Columbus and European settlers is that they intended to carry out mass genocide on the peoples of the Americas so as to render their lands open for colonization and exploitation. These supposedly nefarious intentions are applied to any and all European impacts on the New World, from the Catholic missions to biological exchange and trade patterns. In this progressive fantasy world, indigenous Americans were living in a blissful Edenic paradise until they were purposefully destroyed root & branch by evil and greedy Europeans. I don’t have the space to fully debunk the “noble savage” mythos which is so popular on the left these days, but suffice it to say that Native societies weren’t exactly peaceful utopias; recent archaeological discoveries have conclusively proved that fact – and have lent new credibility to the primary source narratives written by European explorers & settlers.
In the same vein, Europeans who came to the Americas were not, by and large, the monsters they are often portrayed as. None of the early European explorers were intentionally trying to wipe out indigenous populations, yet upwards of 90% of those Natives who died in the decades after European contact were victims of diseases like smallpox. At the time, Europeans – likely the most scientifically advanced societies on Earth – had no idea about germs and the mechanics of disease spread. (As we saw over the past few years, modern societies aren’t great at epidemic control either.) There is certainly no way that they were knowledgeable enough to purposefully spread deadly diseases that Natives had no natural immunity for. Seeing the unfortunate mass death of American Indians from European diseases as an intentional conspiracy is both paranoid nonsense and presentism in action. Similarly, the description of European treatment of Natives as especially brutal and destructive is ahistorical in the extreme. It takes a significant lack of knowledge of contemporary global conditions to make such a farcical statement. The early 1500s saw brutal wars of destruction in Europe and Asia, often with no quarter given and entire populations slaughtered or enslaved. The atrocities visited on Native Americans was, unfortunately, par for the course; but they would have known this themselves given the horrors of their own wars to that point, which wiped out entire tribes and civilizations. As I’ve written in the past, the key question to ask here is “compared to what?” If your answer is either a comparison to a theoretical utopia or the present day, you’re doing history wrong.
Besides the inaccuracies and ill-intentions of the activist push against Columbus Day, the holiday should remain a nationally recognized one because it is a truly American celebration. Our culture has never been a totally stable, unchanging one; we’ve shifted and progressed over the centuries to build the recognizable American culture of today. A big part of that cultural shifting and adaptation has been the influence of mass immigration from across the world. Columbus Day celebrates that uniquely American form of syncretism, where we blend vastly different global perspectives and cultures into one national whole. It is specifically a commemoration of the impact of Italian immigration to the United States, but it need not be so limited. American culture has always been diverse, even when our population has been racially similar; early American settlers had a wide variation in lifestyles, language, religion, food, and family structure. Those differences were consciously understood, merged together, and yet also kept securely apart, by the founders of our country who framed not only our government structures but the very idea of what it meant to be American.
America is not and has never been a homogenous nation, and our diverse roots and backgrounds have greatly contributed to our national strength. Each subsequent wave of immigration made our nation better, from the Irish and German immigrants who bravely fought for the Union they had recently made home, to the later waves of European migrants who transformed America into a dynamic global economy, to the Asian immigrants of the post-war period whose entrepreneurial spirit and drive for excellence have led the way to our prosperous present. Of course, that also includes those who came here through no desire of their own – African slaves – who have not only contributed to American progress, but have radically redefined American culture and made it the model for the world. The best part of American culture is how we mash up so many distinct and different cultures into a cohesive whole wherein one can still make out the constituent parts.
More than anything else, Columbus Day is a celebration of that unique American-ness that makes us so exceptional and different from the other nations of the world. In an era that is hyperconscious of diversity – for good and (mostly) for ill – it is stunning that Columbus Day is being thrown by the wayside. Instead, we should embrace it as a holiday which truly celebrates our syncretic culture and make it an even more important occasion than it currently is. Missing this opportunity to double down on redefining our history versus trashing it entirely would be a profound error. We mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, but keep the baby safe while refreshing the water around it. Like Columbus himself – a Genoan sailor who served the Spanish crown – the holiday has had multiple lives. Columbus Day started out as a memorialization of the first European exploration of the Americas, was broadened to become a commemoration of Italian-American heritage, and should now be seen as a celebration of our national cultural diversity. After all, what’s more American than adaptation?