Another Columbus Day came and went this week, although not as such in Minneapolis, which voted this year to honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead, a time to reflect on the price American Indians paid for the greed and ruthlessness of my European ancestors. Yet it is ironic that Columbus should take the blame, for he was our first “multicultural” hero. An Italian Catholic who sailed for Spain, Columbus was one of a handful of celebrated Americans who did not fit neatly into the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant mold.
Many of our cherished national stories have their dark sides. The Pilgrims of New England who braved the storm-tossed Atlantic seeking the freedom to worship God were also religious bigots, ready to jail, flog or exile anyone who did not share their views on Christian doctrine. The colonists at Jamestown, England’s first permanent settlement in the New World, owed their survival to hard work and John Smith’s tough leadership, but it took tobacco and slave labor to make the colony a commercial success.
Unfortunately for Columbus, the dark side of his story took center stage. Even though his voyages predated European settlement of North America by more than a century, he is the one we blame for the tragic consequences of Western expansionism. But it should come as no surprise that Columbus has lost his place among America’s heroes, for he always had two strikes against him: He belonged to the wrong ethnic group, and he practiced the wrong religion.
It’s a truism that winners write history. For much of American history, the winners have been WASPs — the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants with their roots firmly planted in the soil of Old England. The heroes of Jamestown and Plymouth Rock were WASPs. So, too, were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and all but two of our 43 presidents. But Columbus broke the mold. Columbus was an Italian, and Italians in the early 20th century were among the last and least welcome of America’s immigrants. In a way, Columbus was the first national hero to achieve front-runner status based on a write-in campaign.
The successful lobbying effort that resulted in Columbus Day becoming a federal holiday in 1937 was an important victory for Italian-Americans, one that other ethnic and interest groups would seek to emulate in the years to come.
But the worst strike against Columbus was that he was a Roman Catholic. Catholics have always been a religious minority in Protestant America, and Catholic loyalty to the pope — a foreign prince — made them easy targets.
Catholics had a special place on the Ku Klux Klan hate list, right next to Jews and African-Americans. Like the New England Pilgrims, Roman Catholics in England were a persecuted religious minority. English Catholics founded the colony of Maryland and were soon joined by Catholics from Ireland, Germany and, finally, Italy. Columbus was a logical choice to show that Catholics, too, had played a part in the founding of America.
It is unfortunate that Columbus has to go, for he embodies many of the qualities we respect in the powerful and famous of our own day. Like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs, Columbus came from an ordinary family with no pedigree or family power to pave his way. Like them, he was a technocrat, a master navigator in a day when sailing a small vessel across the ocean was as much of a mystery as the inner workings of the Internet.
But Columbus was a product of his time, an accurate reflection of the passions and prejudices of Europe in the late 15th century. Perhaps we are too eager to find fault, too unwilling to accept the fact that few people get anything of importance done without making mistakes along the way. People who achieve big things often make big mistakes, and so it is for Columbus.
As for me, I’d rather pin the blame on Amerigo Vespucci.
He’s the one who wrote the book that put America on the map, and he’s the one who gave our country his name. That way, when we blame Amerigo for the mistakes of the past, we will really be blaming ourselves. And that’s an irony I can live with.
Rick Menzel, of St. Louis Park, is a retired teacher.