On this day in 1492, Christopher Columbus lands in the New World. Exactly 300 years later, New York City would hold the first Columbus Day celebration. More unofficial celebrations would follow, and the day finally became a federal holiday in the 1930s.
Since then, the holiday has become controversial—to say the least! Some people want to replace his holiday with an “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” Others want to tear down Columbus statutes, labeling them a “symbol of hate.” But do you know how and why we started celebrating Columbus Day in the first place?
It’s impossible to understand Columbus Day unless you first step into the shoes of our Founders.
During America’s early years, the country was looking for heroes. We’d just cut ourselves off from England and had thus lost much of that heritage. Obviously, we had heroes such as George Washington, but Americans wanted other heroes, too. Christopher Columbus was a natural choice. The Italian explorer had risked everything to make a dangerous trip across the Atlantic. He had no idea that he would find an entirely new continent, of course. He was on a mission to find a quicker route from Europe to Asia.
He never found Asia. Instead, he landed in the New World on October 12, 1492. He would make four voyages to the New World before his death in 1506.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that Columbus came to be admired by so many after the American Revolution? His daring spirit, sense of adventure, and his willingness to put everything on the line were understandably appealing to a generation that had just fought—and won—a war against the mighty British army and navy.
Over time, Columbus grew into an American icon. His name is all around us, although you’ve probably never really thought about it. Columbia University is named for him, as is South Carolina’s capital. The Knights of Columbus adopted the name in remembrance of Columbus’s Catholic roots. Perhaps most notably, the District of Columbia—Washington, D.C.—bears his name.
It’s worth noting that those in the Italian community became especially proud of Columbus over the years. They were immigrants who hadn’t always been treated well. But celebrations of Columbus became an opportunity, one historian writes, “for reminding Americans of the indissoluble and everlasting bonds uniting American and Italian histories.”
Thus, to many people, the holiday took on a pro-immigrant meaning as well.
Obviously, Columbus was far from perfect, and modern Americans will debate the pros and cons of remembering his legacy. But perhaps it would help the dialogue to remember just what it was that our ancestors admired about him in the first place.
Ronald Reagan expressed this particular sentiment the best: “[Columbus] was a dreamer, a man of vision and courage, a man filled with hope for the future and with the determination to cast off for the unknown and sail into uncharted seas for the joy of finding whatever was there. Put it all together and you might say that Columbus was the inventor of the American dream.”
Celebrating Ethnicity and Nation: American Festive Culture from the Revolution to the Early 20th Century (Jürgen Heideking et al. eds., 2001)
Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia (Silvio A. Bedini ed. 1991) (Vol. 1)
John Faso & Tom Suozzi, Christopher Columbus, explorer and Italian cultural hero (NY Daily News; October 9, 2017)
Robert Hume, Christopher Columbus and the European Discovery of America (1992)
Ronald Reagan, Remarks on Signing the Columbus Day Proclamation (Oct. 3, 1988)
Steve Hendrix, The Columbus Day holiday is under attack, and so are statues honoring the famed explorer (Washington Post; Oct. 9, 2017)
The Origins and Traditions of Columbus Day (What So Proudly We Hail website)
Thomas J. Schlereth, Columbia, Columbus, and Columbianism (Journal of American History; 1992) (pp. 937-968)