Columbus Day is an unusual American holiday. It doesn’t commemorate a President or a great American statesman. Christopher Columbus found North America, but he didn’t find, or found, the United States.
As Columbus Day rolled around this year, President Obama tried to subtly change the focus of the holiday. Rather than simply celebrate a daring explorer, he also wanted to spotlight the “indigenous peoples who had inhabited the Western hemisphere for millennia.” His presidential proclamation invited Americans to “reflect on the tragic burdens tribal communities bore in the years that followed [Columbus’s landing]…[and to] commemorate the many contributions they have made to the American experience, and let us continue to strengthen the ties that bind us today.”
But this misses the significance of why America celebrates Columbus Day.
Leon Kass, Amy Kass, and Diana Schuab provide a thorough overview of the history and tradition of Columbus Day in their curriculum, What So Proudly We Hail. Columbus was indeed an important figure for many immigrant communities. More than that, Christopher Columbus has long been an American icon.
“The association between Columbus and America continued to prosper as the revolutionary colonists sought to distance themselves from England,” the curriculum observes. “In Columbus, they found a hero who had challenged the unknown sea, leaving the Old World for a new beginning on a virgin continent—much as they were attempting to do.” By the late 18th century, Americans saw Columbus as “a mythic founding figure.” In the 19th century, he was seen as an “archetype of the American ideal: bold, adventurous, innovative.”
No one captures this better than Ronald Reagan. In a 1988 presidential proclamation, Reagan commemorates Columbus for his spirit: “He 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.”
Far from a day to remember our divisions or to dwell on past wrongs, Columbus Day is a day to celebrate an American dream that values diversity, yes, but also rewards daring risk-takers. Or as Reagan put it, “not only an intrepid searcher but the dreams and opportunities that brought so many here after him.”