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COLUMBUS DAY - A BRIEF HISTORY

Columbus Day


The background of “Columbus Day”

On August 3, 1492, Italian navigator Christopher Columbus set sail with three ships and 90 men on a voyage of discovery sponsored by Queen Isabella of Spain. On October 12, 1492, the ships landed in the Caribbean Islands. This landing and subsequent expeditions became the foundation of the European colonies in the New World. Three hundred years later, in 1792, the Society of St. Tammany, or Columbian Order, organized a ceremony in New York City honoring Columbus and the anniversary of the first landing.


Landing of Columbus

On October 12, 1866, Italian-Americans in New York organized a celebration of the discovery of America, and in 1869, Italian-Americans in San Francisco organized a similar celebration and called it “Columbus Day.” Since 1920, the holiday has been celebrated annually. In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed every October 12 as “Columbus Day.” And in 1971, President Nixon declared the holiday would be celebrated on the second Monday in October.

Christopher Columbus in the American Gallery of Heroes

America’s national memory is filled with icons and symbols, deeply held, yet imperfectly understood, beliefs. The role of history is pervasive, yet the facts behind the memories are somehow lost in an amorphous haze of patriotism and perceived national identity. Christopher Columbus, as a hero and symbol of the first order in America, is an important figure in this pantheon of American myth. His status, not unlike most American icons, is representative not of his own accomplishments, but the self-perception of the society which raised him to his pedestal in the American gallery of heroes.

This gallery was not in place at the birth of the political nation. America, as a young republic, found itself immediately in the middle of an identity crisis. Having effected a violent separation from England and its cultural and political icons, America was left without history—or heroes. Michael Kammen, in his Mystic Chords of Memory explains that “repudiation of the past left Americans of the young republic without a firm foundation on which to base a shared sense of their social selves.”

A new national story was needed, yet the leaders of the American Revolution, who were obvious choices for mythical transformation, were loath to be raised to their pedestals. To be raised above others would be undemocratic, they believed. Even though every nation needs an explanation of its own creation, that process was paradoxically elaborated by the reluctance of America’s revolutionary heroes to have their story told prematurely. The human need to explain origins, to create self-identity through national identity, was thwarted by this reluctance. A vacuum was created, and was slowly filled with the image of Christopher Columbus.

Columbus and America in the 18th Century

The association between Columbus and America took root in the imagination of 18th Century America. After the Revolution, Americans had even more reason to think of themselves in distinctive “American” terms, and searching for a history and a hero, discovered Columbus.
It is not hard to understand the appeal of Columbus for the new republic and the former subjects of George III. Columbus had found the way of escape from Old World tyranny. He was the solitary individual who challenged the unknown sea, as triumphant Americans contemplated the dangers and promise of their own wilderness frontier. As a consequence of his original vision and audacity, matched by America’s revolutionary heroes, there was now a land free from kings, a vast continent for new beginnings. In Columbus the new nation without its own history and mythology found a hero from the distant past, one seemingly free of any taint from association with European colonial powers. The Columbus symbolism gave America an instant mythology and a unique place in history, and their adoption of Columbus magnified his own place in history.

... and in the 19th Century

The Revolutionary Generation of Americans was inspired by Columbus, but for nineteenth century Americans, he was an embodiment of that century’s faith in progress—seeking out new lands, a fearless explorer. The United States, certainly by the 1830s, was in the throes of a love affair with the new. America was seen as the “country of the Future”, the “new” more important than “ancient” history. Formal education gave short shrift to the past. American history remained very much a minor subject in the schools—rarely a part of the curriculum. Americans had a “limited attention span for history, even the history of their own heroes.” What was important was that their heroes were bold, adventurous, and represented innovation.

Who better than Columbus to represent the bold new America? Again, as in the late eighteenth century, Columbus was a reflection of the society that created and re-created him. Kammen reminds us that “societies in fact reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them” and do so “with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind.” The culture of the early nineteenth century was one of growing fragmentation, and “obstacles to achieving a viable, coherent sense of national tradition were numerous: distinctive sections as well as value systems with conflicting self-images of one another and themselves” as well as diverse political factions and parties. Columbus was a perfect icon for the confusing days of the early nineteenth century, cutting across social, political, and regional boundaries, providing a kind of superficial unity for the American national identity, an increasingly mono-dimensional hero, created in the image of the age.
 

COLUMBUS DAY - A BRIEF HISTORY






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