The Columbus Day Debate

(This essay was originally published as “Don’t junk Columbus and other heroes,” in the Providence Journal on October 13, 2014.)

Like the celebration of Thanksgiving, which has been squeezed severely by the commercialism of Halloween at one end and Christmas on the other, Columbus Day has diminished in importance as an American holiday since FDR made it a national holiday in 1934 and therefore as a source of American identity.

Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, and South Dakota do not recognize it at all. South Dakota renamed it “Native American Day,” and California and Texas do not recognize it as a paid holiday for government workers. Several cities, such as Berkeley, California, have replaced it with “Indigenous People’s Day.”

Here in Rhode Island, Columbus’ image is still strong, even though my US History students shrug in indifference when I mention his name. Once again Newport should be celebrating Columbus Day with its annual Columbus Day Parade through the heart of the city, ending at the Columbus statue at Memorial and Bellevue. It is a handsome statue with Columbus atop, holding a small globe in one hand. In the granite pedestal are engraved the words: “Discoverer of America.”

Critics of Columbus and this holiday argue from two primary vantage points. The first emphasizes the negative effects of what he began: Historians call it the Columbian Exchange, a tremendous exchange of plants, animals, insects, disease, technology, and humans. The second strand of criticism focuses on his undesirable character traits, such as his self-promotion and desire for noble status. These criticisms suffer in that they judge him by our ethics and not those existing at the time. Also, the critics may not fully appreciate or admit how they, themselves, might have acted at that time. Let’s not forget that native American tribes could be bitter enemies and sometimes welcomed European settlers for their technology and their support in seeking to dominate other tribes. Cortes and the Spanish, for example, were able to conquer the Aztecs in part because of the allied support from other native American tribes who hated the Aztecs.

Our own Ivy League school, Brown University, founded ironically with money in part from the slave trade beginning with the Columbian Exchange, eliminated “Columbus Day” in 2009. The student group, Native Americans, led a protest “after controversy arose over the nature of Christopher Columbus’ conquests and treatment of Native Americans.” By a voice vote, the faculty voted to end Columbus Day in favor of “Fall Weekend.” Quite understandably, John Brown (more irony), the medicine man of the Narragansett Indians, was delighted and said, “… people are beginning to see from a historical point of view that Christopher Columbus was no real hero.”

Heroes and role models are part of the glue which holds civilizations together. The ancient Greeks had their Odysseus and other warriors whose exploits, in the works of Homer, provided for centuries the moral code Greeks used to educate and socialize their children. The ancient Romans had their Aeneas and also their Romulus and Remus.

We must use caution in chiseling away too many of our heroes if we are to endure as a vibrant civilization. Granted we still have other sources of shared identity: our remarkable, oft-plagiarized Constitution, American Jazz, baseball, our vibrant entertainment culture, and our ethos of freedom and democracy as sources of American identity. However, fiddling too much with these well-springs, especially our heroes, can prove perilous. Are we to dethrone Thomas Jefferson, the principal writer of our Declaration of Independence, not only for owning slaves but probably siring six children with one of those slaves, Sally Hemings? Are we to dethrone Franklin Delano Roosevelt for his adulterous affairs? And what of Martin Luther King, the only person for whom we have dedicated a national holiday? Should his courageous deeds be ripped from our history books because of his infidelity to his wife? Like Christopher Columbus, these men—along with even George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—had what could be viewed as character flaws. This does not deny their heroism; rather, it confirms their humanness.

We should keep Columbus on his pedestal and teach our children, in increments, both his virtues—his courage, tenacity, leadership, and vision –and his foibles. However, let’s be sure to continue to name our streets, towns, counties, lakes, community colleges, and parks after native Americans. (I myself was born in Passaic, NJ; my first car was a Pontiac.) Along with statues of Columbus, let’s also erect statues of Squanto, Massasoit, and Geronimo, and tell our children about their virtues … and shortcomings.

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