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 U.S. 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 U.S.; 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.
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 U.S. 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 U.S.
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.
[A version of this post ran on October 10, 2011.]