Sunday, October 7, 2012
Columbus Day: A National Holiday
October 12th is the traditional day for celebrating Columbus Day, though the holiday always falls on the second Monday of October. Columbus is criticized for having the prototypical attitude of the European sailing captains and merchants who explored and exploited the Atlantic in the 15th century. He was a man of unusual ambition. He also takes the brunt of the criticism lodged against the European colonizers for the harsh treatment of the native populations of the Americas.
Four hundred years after Columbus' first voyage, President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed a national holiday to honor the landing in San Salvador. Harrison wanted to set aside a day that recognized both Native Americans and the many immigrants, including Italians, who were flocking to the U.S. in record numbers. This holiday would be the first one that was not a religious holiday or one that honored the Founding Fathers. It was to be a day that celebrated the ordinary people who were part of American history. It was planned to be a tribute to democracy as well: universal public schooling was recently instituted - a hallmark decision for democracy because it was designed to include everyone, not just the wealthy governing elite.
The first parade was held in New York City and its marchers were primarily 12,000 school children from each constituency. Public high school students led the way, followed by Catholics, then other private and national schools. The Native Americans were included in the procession. The parade was an attempt to universally unite every group who called themselves Americans.
Nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Two years before the national holiday was declared, U.S. troops massacred 200 Lakota Sioux people at Wounded Knee because of an unfortunate misunderstanding. The U.S. government acknowledge the tragedy of the soldiers actions. In a separate incident ten weeks later, eleven Italian citizens were lynched in prison. The Italians were put to death because of a public fears. Italians were almost as unpopular as the Native Americans. President Harrison was saddened by the events. It is conceivable that Harrison wanted to instill a spirit within the American people who could move beyond their own prejudice and to recognize the great contributions of its many diverse peoples.
The idea behind the holiday is much deeper than most Americans realize. We impose today's attitudes upon events that happened much earlier and that is intellectually dishonest. The goals of Harrison are certainly admirable. Columbus' landing was a momentous step in a world that would see monumental changes within a short period of time. Such a discovery rarely has happened in human history and for that alone, it is a holiday worth remembering.