Giving Columbus the Confederate Treatment


Americans ritually observed another front in the culture wars this week on Columbus Day / Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  An increasing number of cities and states are abandoning the man once revered by most Americans for “sailing the ocean blue” in 1492,  the names of whose three ships children were patriotically required to memorize.   Like all conflicts over historical memory, this one is driven by present-day power struggles, the rhetoric and narrative of which frequently obscures reasoned analysis.  This August in Baltimore,  “the purported first-ever monument to the explorer, erected in 1792, was attacked with a sledgehammer.”     At its root, the Columbus Day controversy poses the question of how America can build a historical narrative that satisfies most Americans.

In the traditionalist view, one purpose behind Columbus Day is the celebration of the chain of events that led to the establishment of the country and to our prosperous democracy, for which we can in many ways be thankful.  It is part of the story of America.  Is it as significant in the American consciousness as Independence Day or as linked to the founding myths as Thanksgiving?  Clearly not, but it has had resonance throughout American history.

Per the Washington Post:

The first reported Columbus Day celebration was held in New York in October 1792 to mark the tricentennial of his voyage. That same year, a French diplomat in Baltimore erected a 44-foot stucco obelisk creating what some historians believe was the first Columbus memorial in the Americas, if not the world.

His grip on the public imagination grew after Washington Irving penned a biography of Columbus in 1828.  And an increasing number of Catholic immigrants latched onto his story as an apt symbol of their own arrival. Near the time of the Columbus quadricentennial in 1892, the Columbian Exhibition at the World’s Fair in Chicago was a sensation. Memorials began going up around the country, including a huge fountain sculpture in front of Washington’s Union Station.

Cynics may observe that Columbus Day has also been a vehicle for the Italian-American community to celebrate its culture and promote its Americanness.  To draw upon a scholarly source, the characters in the Sopranos certainly thought so.   His “discovery” is also based on myth – that he proved the earth was round, not flat, is one such piece of nonsense.  But the figure of Columbus obviously had important and positive historical resonance with mainstream American society as well.  Why?  Because his “discovery” set in motion the chain of events that made the USA possible, from the pilgrims until the present.

For supporters of Indigenous Day, conversely, the issue is a morally simple one.   Not only were the actions of the man himself questionable even by the standards of his own day, but his “discovery” enabled the genocide and centuries of displacement and cultural degradation that followed.  The indigenous victims of the expansion still feel the effects of centuries of displacement and genocide to this day, a fact which few observers of the average indigenous quality of life could deny.

Is this view the correct one?  It is a very strong argument.  One thing that is certain is that by attempting to extirpate Columbus Day from the calendar by substituting it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, traditionalists can understandably view it as an implicit attack on the legitimacy of the American tradition.  At the very least, it is at least a change in historical focus.

This change in emphasis is part of a broader overall shift.   Traditionalist Americans may resent a history that casts their ancestors as aggressors and other people as victims – even though that narrative often has truth to it.   It is a newer narrative that frequently casts older America myths and traditions not as things to be celebrated, but rather reviled.

Another way to adjudicate this question is in the parallel recent issue of statutes honouring the Confederacy, which are now coming down throughout the USA.   This parallel is useful because, while the two issues are part of the same broad question of historical narrative and have many of the same players on both sides, they are still different enough that the response to one does not necessitate the same feelings about the other.  The core animating issue of the Confederacy was its desire to keep other human beings as slaves – that which was positive about it was at best a certain kind of aristocratic gentility, which was in any case highly romanticized and built upon the scarred backs of chattel slaves.  Confederate statutes, erected decades after the Civil War, more obviously represent something odious with few redeeming features, and their removal is warranted.

Conversely, presenting Columbus as an icon of genocide, whose memory must likewise be cleansed and purged from the public square, is a more difficult moral judgement. If his discoveries made possible the evil that came after, they also made possible a great good:   setting the process in motion that culminated in the democracy enjoyed today by hundreds of millions.   None of that, however, detracts from the fact that Indigenous Peoples have excellent cause to protest celebration of the man.

For the time being, while I celebrate the empowerment and celebration of indigenous peoples, I am uneasy about seeing Columbus’ memory increasingly displaced from the public square or as a target of iconoclast ire.  While recognizing the grave historical injustices that occurred and whose effects are still ongoing to this day, I do not subscribe to the broader “aggressors and victims” narrative of American or western history.  It is too simplistic, too divisive, and too antithetical to a healthy national identity.

It is disconcerting that there is no obvious resolution to this question.  Of course, historical myths needn’t be logical or even wholly true, so future myths and holidays that more easily include and satisfy most Americans may still be possible.  That is made more difficult when such questions are not adjudicated by dialogue and discussion, but rather by hammers, ideologues, outrage police, and Nazi thugs with tiki-torches.