Another Columbus Day has come and gone. This latest one was quieter than some previous ones. It is as if each side in the culture wars has staked out its turf and for the moment is content to let things ride.
Columbus may be considered a five-stratum tel. Tell is an archaeological term. It refers to a human-built mound over time mainly from debris by inhabitants living at the same site. Archaeologists excavate such tells until they reach bedrock. Each stratum or layer is carefully marked. One of the most famous tells is located at Megiddo, the mound that gave us the word mount Megiddo equals Armageddon. It is a mound of over 25 levels and served as the source for the book The Source by James Michener.
Normally, the layers are counted from top down since that is the sequence in which they are uncovered. In this blog on Columbus, I will start from the bottom up.
LEVEL 1 HISTORIC COLUMBUS
Historic Columbus refers to Columbus in his own time frame – Who was he? What did he do? Why did he do what he did? Although the ancient Greek Herodotus is generally referred to as the father of history from nearly 2500 years ago, the academic concept of history is more recent. The first graduate school in the United States was at The Johns Hopkins in 1876 following its post-Napoleon development in Germany. Many history organizations here were founded in the immediate aftermath of this new way of pursuing knowledge. One key element of the methodology was the search for and use of sources to shed light on what actually had occurred.
This layer is primarily the realm of scholars. Archaeology can contribute as excavations reveal artifacts and texts from the period under review. Sometimes archives in churches and libraries provide previously unknown or unexamined materials which can be woven into the narrative. Even when the subject is a single individual like Columbus, scholars need to broaden their horizons both geographically and chronologically to situate the figure in his time and space. What was he thinking when he was planning his voyage west? What did he know? What did he hope to achieve. Here is where letters, diaries, and journals from the time period and in his own hand become important.
Sometimes people or events studied within the academic arena break out into the public arena, for example, Hamilton, the musical.
LEVEL 2 AMERICAN HERO COLUMBUS
Columbus, of course, never reached what became the United States. Why then did the Founding Fathers make such a big deal about including naming the capital of the country after him?
At the birth of the United States, we were a young country. Obviously. But we were also young in time. We had severed our ties to England. That meant we could not draw on English history as our own. The events and people in English history well-known to the Founding Fathers were now off limits. Our historical memory as Americans began on July 4, 1776. So while England, France, Spain, and later Germany and Italy could boast of their ancient and long-lived cultures, we could not. Instead, we had to create a past for ourselves so we, too, could be proud of our heritage.
One obvious example was through the (Protestant) Bible. We were God’s New Israel. Suddenly we had a heritage that was thousands of years old, even older than England!
Another way was through Christopher Columbus. His stature in 1792 made his tricentennial a significant event to people seeking to create a heritage for the country. For the next century through the quadricentennial belatedly celebrated in 1893, Columbus became a national icon. The female version Columbia became a symbol of the country before Lady Liberty was erected in New York.
This Columbus had a national impact. Many streets, parks, rivers, and cities are named after him as a national hero.
LEVEL 3 ITALIAN-AMERICAN COLUMBUS DAY
When Italians began migrating to the United States in great numbers, they followed the example of the Founding Fathers. The new immigrants were not biological sons or daughters of the American Revolution. The Irish and the Germans had been here longer. So the Italians fastened their attention to Columbus, just as the Founding Fathers had. Suddenly the Italian immigrants had a more than 400-year tradition of being in the New World; they were part of the American national narrative.
For the next century following the Columbus quadricentennial, the Columbus Day celebration shifted from being a national event, to one more closely identified with Italian Americans. In communities with a significant Italian immigrant population, Columbus Day became an even important holiday. Finally it became a legally recognized national holiday. Of course, if you live in a community without a significant Italian presence, then Columbus Day was a vestige of the time when it was a national holiday.
LEVEL 4 HISPANIC-AMERICAN COLUMBUS DAY
There has been another wave of immigrants to the United States since the Italians arrived in force. For Hispanic-Americans, Columbus Day provided a ready-made opportunity to connect to their new country. Part of the reason was that Columbus was not an unknown figure to immigrants from Latin America. It was easy for them to join the parade, quite literally.
Consider my own village in the suburbs of New York. Earlier in the 20th century, it had experienced a wave of Italian immigration. There are few families or businesses dating to prior to World War I here. The next wave was from Central America and other Latin American countries. The mayor has changed from being Italian to being Peruvian.
Here is where the stratum begin to merge. For decades, the Italians had taken the lead in organizing the parade and arranging for the funding. This year the Peruvian Mayor joined with them in laying a wreath in front of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Park. The Mayor also was the grand marshal of the parade. All the school bands from elementary school to high school participated in the parade. There were other bands as well from a variety of organizations, ethnic, social, cultural. Elected officials were there including the County Executive, the State Senator, and the State Legislator. The parade truly was a community event.
LEVEL 5 WOKE COLUMBUS DAY AKA INDIGENOUS PEOPLE DAY
In the culture wars, Columbus has become a vilified figure of evil. He certainly should be toppled if not thoroughly erased from the American national narrative. Communities have had mixed reactions to the Woke admonition. Some have adhered to the Woke guidelines and cancelled Columbus. Some have straddled the issue and sought to pay homage to both sides. Parades tend to be for Columbus while ceremonies at a fixed location are more likely to be Woke. Each community makes its own decision.
The number of Hispanic-Americans probably exceeds the number of Woke Americans. This means that just as Italians changed the way Columbus Day was celebrated in the United States, so Hispanic Americans are likely to impact the way Columbus Day is recognized. Hispanic-Americans do not necessarily subscribe to the view that Columbus Day should be a day of mourning for what Columbus did himself to indigenous people or what others later did. Certainly not the parade I watched in my own village. Like the Founding Fathers and Italians who sought to celebrate their American identity, the Hispanic are bringing their own decidedly un-Woke fervor, enthusiasm, and energy to the event. It is the one national holiday, where they can most enthusiastically express their American identity that is directly based on their own heritage. We can witness a similar dynamic unfolding in voting. These people are proud to be American and want to celebrate it.
4 thoughts on “The Five Levels of Columbus”
“Why then did the Founding Fathers make such a big deal about including naming the capital of the country after him?”
Is that quite accurate?
The National Archives’ Founders Online describes April 1790 directions by Jefferson regarding a medal “One suggestion has been a Columbia (a final female figure) delivering the emblems of peace and commerce to a Mercury, with the Legend ‘Peace and Commerce’ circumscribed, and the date of our Republic.” Obviously, yes, the name “Columbia” is derived from Columbus. However, a symbolic female figure is also rather distinct from a real man. The medal as ultimately made does indeed depict Columbia (as a factually inaccurate “Indian princess) with Mercury. (Incidentally, a ca. 1792 Tammany Society, or Colombian Society, medal bears some resemblance to it, though the female figure stands and the male figure resembles a pilgrim rather than Mercury.)
The naming of what would become the capitol as the “Territory of Columbia” around September 1791 doesn’t seem to have been accompanied by fanfare or publicity. —I’m kind of surprised by that, actually.
Mentions of Columbus/Colombus/Colombo among the documents searchable on Founders Online (granted, not inclusive of everything) are relatively rare, and passing rather than substantive. A number of those mentions are with respect to Joel Barlow’s The Vision of Columbus; A Poem in Nine Books, rather than directly to the man himself.
Jefferson was, in 1787, pursuing reproductions of paintings, writing in Italian (and translated online): “By these passages it would seem that the pictures of Americus Vespucius, of Columbus, of Magellan and Cortez exist at Florence. I should wish extremely to obtain copies of the two first, and even of the two last also, if not too expensive.” Certainly he was of interest. Franklin, though, appeared to believe Columbus wasn’t the first to visit: “If any Phenicians arriv’d in America, I should rather think it was not by the Accident of a Storm, but in the Course of their long and adventurous Voyages; and that they coasted from Denmark and Norway over to Greenland, and down Southward by Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, &c. to New England, as the Danes themselves certainly did some Ages before Columbus.”
The erasure you (hyperbolically/sarcastically?) mention isn’t terribly likely. Those who identify Columbus as mostly or primarily a wart undeserving of statues or day of celebration of him personally, they generally also favor “warts and all” history education, do they not? To omit/prohibit the topic of Columbus from social studies would be as absurd as omitting/prohibiting the topic of slavery.
Thanks for the information. “Big deal” may not have been the most appropriate terminology. The references may be more implicit than explicit like Columbus, Ohio, which had no direct connection with Columbus. Columbus may be taught but just as Benedict Arnold is taught, as villains of history. My own personal feeling is that the Woke would have no objection to having every statue, street, park, etc. named after Columbus but would settle for erasing anything that portrays him in an heroic fashion.
Great article! Thanks for sending. My own sense is that the holiday was officially instituted to offset prejudice against Italian immigrants. There had been a mass lunching of Italian immigrants in the south that may have triggered President Harrison to institute the holiday. Columbus is just a placeholder. Mother Cabrini, sent from Rome to work with Italian immigrants in the US, also used Columbus as a placeholder and named a lot of the hospitals and schools she founded after him rather than after saints, which is the usual custom.
Thanks. I appreciate the kind words. Peter