By: Hunter Estes
Many Americans around the country will not be attending school or work today, and that is because, upon this day, we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Christopher Columbus, founder of the New World. Unfortunately, our school, Georgetown University, has now chosen not to recognize the name of this important holiday. In fact, many now claim this day in the name of Indigenous People. Such, moral grandstanding dismisses the important historical and cultural significance of Columbus Day to millions of Catholics and Italians around the nation. Rejection of Columbus Day is a disgrace and highlights Georgetown’s weak-willed insistence on placating the voices of student mobs.
Much has been said about Columbus himself, but in this piece I would like to discuss the origins of this day which we celebrate, and its meaning for so many Americans. Columbus Day was unofficially celebrated in many cities and states as early as the 18th century, but took on larger importance for many immigrant communities later on. In 1792, New York commemorated the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing. Many Italians and Catholics organized annual religious events to honor the explorer. On the 400th anniversary of the landing, President Benjamin Harrison encouraged people to “so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.” Ultimately, it was in 1937, due to lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, that President Franklin Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a Federal Holiday.
Today, some oppose the legacy of Columbus and thus reject this holiday. Interestingly, those who stand against the day actually rest on a long tradition of opposition. Almost immediately from its founding, the day was opposed by many due to deeply engrained biases against the Catholic faith and its followers. For many decades in our nation, much of the country felt that one could not be Catholic and a true American. Catholics were seen as Papists who held the Church as having greater authority than the president and American institutions, and thus many believed that Catholics could not be productive members of society. In public life, Catholics were demonized and belittled. This deep-seated disgust for Catholics reared its ugly head consistently in public life. It can be seen in the vitriolic attacks against Al Smith, the first Catholic presidential candidate. Yet, it can also be traced all the way through John F. Kennedy’s presidential run, as he was frequently questioned and distrusted by many on account of his Catholic faith.
Furthermore, biases against Catholics served to further promote deep racism and resentment against Irish and Italian immigrants. For those who came to the United States seeking a better life, many found that they were not entirely welcomed by their new home both due to their faith and race.
Columbus Day became a central rallying point for Catholics. Christopher Columbus was viewed by many Americans as an initial founder of the nation, whose brave exploits ultimately led to the capacity for our great American nation to be established. Catholics seized upon this appreciation for the man, and held up Columbus as a shining example that one could in fact be both Catholic, and a proud American. Furthermore, Italians especially revered the great explorer as a testament to how Italians had contributed richly to American life, and that they ought to be accepted fully into society.
Columbus Day represents what is best about America. The day symbolizes that ultimate goal of immigrants for integration into society, and our constant historical challenge to better meet the full definition of the rights promised to Americans in the Constitution, and the ideals promoted by our traditions. Celebrating Columbus Day does not mean white-washing history. One can recognize the ills of Columbus’ actions, however it is necessary to place his work within the context of the moment and the moral structures of the time. Furthermore, it should never be forgotten how the day has empowered millions of Catholics and immigrants to make the claim that they too are proud Americans. Georgetown should be ashamed of itself for striking this day from their calendars. Rather than attempting to intellectually challenge our community with a proper historical analysis of Columbus’ work as well as the origins of the day which celebrates him, they took the easy path, and simply cast the day aside. Well, as an individual with family origins in both the Italian and Native American communities, and as a proud Catholic, I am deeply disheartened to see Georgetown so willing to dismiss history and tradition in order to appease the mobs of trending opinion who readily decry that which they oppose, without the slightest bit of contextual understanding.