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Happy Columbus Day (Observed)
Columbus at Salvador, Dioscuro Tolin (Wikimedia)

The usual grumblings attend the day on which we commemorate the most famous illegal immigrant in the history of the Americas, an undocumented wanderer from Spain who brought plagues, fire and the sword from the Old World to the New.

Columbus Day is our most confused holiday celebration, one in which the public understanding of the day has shifted the farthest from the intent of those who instituted the observance. Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World on October 12, 1492 only became a federal holiday in the US in 1934. Since the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 we have celebrated it on the Monday closest to the actual date; Veterans’ Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Fourth of July escaped the leveling axe and are still celebrated on their actual dates.

There is a long history of celebrating the European discovery of the Americas outside the United States.  Many South American and Caribbean countries began celebrating the day as a celebration of Latino ethnic identity well before Columbus Day made it onto the holiday calendar in the US; Venezuela now celebrates it as the Day of Indigenous Resistance.  In Spain, the day on which an Italian discovered what we now know as the Bahamas – under the impression he was nearing Japan – was long celebrated as Dia de la Hispanidad.

In American history, the fight to make a holiday on Columbus Day actually had almost nothing to do with the actual arrival of Christopher Columbus in the western hemisphere.  It wasn’t about celebrating the European conquest of the Americas or the extirpation of the native tribes.

The day was made a holiday after years of lobbying as a way of recognizing the contribution of Roman Catholics and immigrants generally to American life.  It is a holiday to celebrate diversity, not to commemorate the imperial outreach of Ferdinand and Isabella, a deeply regrettable couple who were notorious oath breakers, inquisitors and anti-Semites.

Posthumous Portrait of Columbus by Piombo (Wikimedia)

Back in the 1930s there was a widespread feeling among both Protestant and Catholic Americans that Roman Catholics, and especially Catholics from non-English speaking countries, were not and could not be “real Americans”.  Al Smith, the popular governor of New York, was the first Roman Catholic ever nominated for the presidency by a major party; suspicion of his religion made his defeat even greater than usual, as many solidly Democratic and pro-Prohibition voters in the South deserted the Catholic “wet” to vote for the reliably dry Protestant, Herbert Hoover.

For the KKK in those days, Catholics were one of the foreign influences that “real” Americans had to fight, and many Protestant whites still considered Italians, Greeks and other southern European ethnic groups to be too “swarthy” to be fully white.

Irish Catholics had faced discrimination, but with most of them arriving in the US as native speakers of English (some still spoke Gaelic as a first language in the 19th century) and looking as “white” as anybody else, the Irish, through hard work and the sheer weight of numbers, had carved out a pretty solid place for themselves by the 1930s.  The Irish arrival at the height of American society was signaled by FDR’s appointment of Joseph Kennedy as his ambassador to the Court of St. James; many a Hibernian soul was comforted and soothed to think of an Irishman like Kennedy hobnobbing with kings and prime ministers on more than equal terms as the representative of the President of the United States.

The Italian-Americans were the largest and most powerful Catholic ethnic group that still felt themselves to be uneasily outside the American mainstream.  They were (and are) swing voters; especially in FDR’s home state of New York Italian-Americans (partly out of old rivalries with the Irish) are often Republicans.

The Knights of Columbus was founded in 1882 in New Haven, Connecticut as a Catholic fraternal organization.  Catholics were forbidden by Rome to join the Freemasons, and other fraternal groups at that time in the US barred Catholics from membership.  These civic self help fraternal groups provided community services, raised money for members in distress, and often organized cheap life insurance for their members.  The isolation of Catholics from this vital element of American life both emphasized their outsider status in the US and left them without the resources and support these groups often provided.

The Knights of Columbus filled a need and quickly became a national organization.  Membership in the organization was a way for Catholics to help themselves and their community, to assert their identity as Catholics, and also to move into the culture of civic activism and voluntary associations that is a hallmark of traditional Anglo-Protestant social organization in both the UK and the US.

Christopher Columbus had a useful name for the organization’s founders to appropriate.  He was a Catholic himself, and an agent of their Most Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella.  Known to every schoolchild as the discoverer of America, he emphasized the indispensable role that Catholics had played in the story of the New World from the time of the discovery forward.  The Irish at that time dominated American Catholic life, but there were tensions between the Irish and more recent immigrant groups struggling for representation and recognition. Choosing the name of an Italian hired by the Spanish gave the Knights of Columbus a universal and small “c” catholic character, rather than a purely Hibernian one.

The order was controversial; in 1912 claims that the fourth degree knights had to swear an oath to exterminate Freemasons and Protestants became widespread, and the charges figured in the 1928 campaign against Al Smith.  When the Episcopalian Democrat Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932, the lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and Italian-American organizations and lobbies to make Columbus Day a national holiday grew intense, and FDR signed a bill to make October 12 a holiday in 1934.

Columbus Day is not an imperialistic holiday.  It is a celebration of American diversity, a long overdue recognition of the importance of Catholics and immigrants in American life.  It is a celebration we share with our Hispanic neighbors in the New World and it is a day that testifies to our growing understanding that religious and ethnic pluralism aren’t problems for our American heritage; pluralism is central to our identity as a people.

That American Indian activists want to use the day to make a point is OK with me; they have a point to make.  But Columbus Day is a holiday that was created to celebrate the dignity and equality of Americans regardless of origin or creed, and that in my view is an excellent reason for the country to take the day off.

Happy Columbus Day from Via Meadia.

We will be back to a regular posting schedule tomorrow.

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  • Silke

    I seem to remember that you have mentioned belonging to the Methodist Church some time ago. If that is true is that then the same Methodist Church figuring in this report?

  • Luke Lea

    Nicely done! No offense but I thought I was reading Steve Sailer there for a while. I thought how reasonable he is becoming. 🙂

  • Random Dude

    Look out for one of your readers indulging in the protesting zeitgeist somewhere today in North Beach/Telegraph Hill, at SF’s annual Columbus Day parade.

    I’ll be the guy waving the “Joe Kennedy was a Very Regrettable Nazi Symphathizer” sign. Good times for all…

  • Gabriel

    Reading this made me realize that I’m young enough that I’ll probably live to see the day when Martin Luther King day is widely seen as a gratuitous slap at atheists.

  • Hugh

    “Columbus Day is not an imperialistic holiday. It is a celebration of American diversity, a long overdue recognition of the importance of Catholics and immigrants in American life.”

    Pathetic. Whites have become such [so much less masculine than this reader thinks we ought to be] that we can’t even celebrate Columbus without couching it in the [vulgar expression of disdain omitted] language of the Cultural Marxist left. Columbus Day isn’t a celebration of diversity. It’s a celebration of the superiority of Western culture and people.

  • Kris

    “Columbus Day is a holiday that was created to celebrate the dignity and equality of Americans regardless of origin or creed, and that in my view is an excellent reason for the country to take the day off.”

    Surely not! I am reminded of this passage by David Warren: “My Gaelic, Calvinist ancestors (on my mama’s side), were very clear about the meaning of Labour Day. As they said, that is the day when we work especially hard, to prove how much our efficiency has improved over the last year.”

  • btims

    I’d say at this point, after 40 years of government policy designed to “de-Caucasian” the United States, we could use a lttle less of the “vaunted” diversity.

    How about a 10-20 year reduction in immigration, especially in bad economic times? No chance, the political class values foreign born “Americans” more than native born Americans.

    Good-bye USA….

  • Chris Bolts

    No, the reason people dislike Columbus Day is because it led to the creation of the obviously racist, genocidal United States of America, which is obviously the only country to engage in racism and/or genocide. Nope, it has never done anything good for the world and if the United States never existed Indians wouldn’t still be killing one another and other countries would not have systematically tried to populate the Americas by trying to completely wipe them out.

  • Charles

    I am surprised at how any thinking person could describe Columbus, even with tongue in cheek, as an illegal immigrant. That would seem to imply so many things–a nation state, one actually literate with an established legal code, with clearly articulated laws regarding entry into the country, just to cite one. Also, in general, it seems rather necessary, when someone is described as an immigrant, that the person actually be immigrating, not merely exploring or visiting. As Columbus was neither an immigrant, nor in any conceivable sense illegal, the comparison to actual illegal immigrants is rather, shall we say, off the mark.

  • LinW

    Columbus Day was also pushed in order to make a point that not Italians were mafiosi. Al “Scar Face” Capone was the face of Italians in America for a lot of people. Columbus was an antidote.

  • Great historical info as always, wrote an essay on Columbus at
    Used the August 2nd date with the expulsion of the Jews and the August 3rd date of his departure. Would you mind taking a look?

  • Maximum randb

    In Massachusetts too, as in NY, many of the Italian immigrants voted Republican to compete with the earlier-arrived Irish. Hence Governor Foster Furcolo in the fifties, John Volpe in the sixties and seventies, and Argeo Paul Celucci in the 1990s.

  • Severn

    >”pluralism is central to our identity as a people.”

    That’s about as incoherent a sentence as it is possible to write. “Our identity is based on our lack of identity!”

    >”especially in FDR’s home state of New York Italian-Americans (partly out of old rivalries with the Irish) are often Republicans.”

    And that’s about as ignorant a statement as it’s possible to write. In New York both Irish and Italians are often Republicans. And the reason WHY they are often Republicans is that the “pluralism” so central to our identity is explicitly hostile to non-Jewish whites.

    But it’s still worthwhile reading Mead just to get a peek into the thought processes of the liberal establishment.

  • Paul

    Irrespective of the history, Columbus Day should celebrate the spirit of bravery needed to get into a wooden tub and cross an ocean without knowing if there’s really anywhere to land on the other side.

  • Earl of Sandwich

    You take Columbus Day off but not weekends? Labor unions were part of the American experience too.

  • Adam

    Sure, perhaps Columbus day was created in an effort to celebrate pluralism. But because this holiday is named after an imperialistic, genocidal killer personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, I for one hesitate to wish anyone a “happy Columbus day” — regardless of the thinking behind the creation of the holiday.

  • Carey J.

    “Ferdinand and Isabella, a deeply regrettable couple who were notorious oath breakers, inquisitors and anti-Semites.”

    After finally freeing their people from 800 years of dhimmitude under a foreign occupier, I doubt that Ferdinand and Isabella were feeling terribly multicultural towards any other group. Judging them by today’s standards of political correctness is simply silly, Dr. Mead. You should be embarrassed to have put such a statement in print.

  • Jim.

    @Paul —

    Thank you for pointing out the lesson all of us should learn from this holiday! It’s a crying shame that it took so many comments before that idea came to the surface.

    An America that cannot celebrate Columbus’ bravery, curiosity, and drive is an America that condemns itself to mediocrity, provincialism, decline, and despair.

    At some point in world history, there would have been contact between America and Eurasia. At that point, the Amerinds would have been wiped out by disease just the same, even if the contact had (in some inexplicable way) been made by the most devout Multicultists. Tragic? Yes. Does this excuse maligning Columbus? Not in the least.

    To throw away this man’s remarkable human endeavor is to urinate on the spirit of all American explorers and pioneers, from Lewis and Clark to Neil Armstrong.

    It is also to destroy our hope for the future, which depends on frontiers in ways that the small-minded Columbus-bashers will never realize.

  • Toni

    Tangential, but a fascinating book — 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Author Charles Mann describes many Indian cultures that existed pre-Columbus, going back many thousands of years. (He uses “Indian” because that’s what living indigenous people he’s met call themselves.) The New Revelations include how startlingly ecologically sophisticated some of these cultures, manipulating their environments on a very large scale.

    For example, American colonists did not find dense old-growth forests. They found big trees with no underbrush because the Native Americans regularly burned it away. Plains Indians regularly burned the Great Plains as well. After their populations were decimated by disease, and ceased to burn vast swaths, the numbers of buffalo exploded along with the regrown grasses.

    Now I’m reading the author’s recently published 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, which is about the worldwide societal upheavals that ensued. Both recommended, but especially 1491.

    Celebrating a holiday with a good book is not a bad idea, eh?

  • dearieme

    I hadn’t known it was all a Papist plot: well, well. Anyway, are you sure about “… the day on which an Italian discovered ….”? There are people claiming Columbus as Catalan, Portugese, Scots and (I dare say) Irish, Russian and Chinese.

  • Bill Hocter

    Carey J @17-Well said!

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