|Landing of Columbus, oil on canvas by John Vanderlyn, 1846. In the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Source: http://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/historic-rotunda-paintings/landing-columbus.|
In the past few decades, the annual arrival of Columbus Day (or, in many parts of the country, Indigenous People’s Day) has raised important questions about how we define heroism and discovery, how we approach tragedy and violence in history, and from whose perspective history should be told. I’d like to add another thread to that discussion, one that links the American celebration of Columbus to the history of religion, nationalism, and the U.S. West.
Columbus, of course, was not initially celebrated in the United States for being Catholic. In fact, in Washington Irving’s popular 1829 biography, he is given a bit of a proto-Protestant gloss. Here is Irving’s (apocryphal) portrait of Columbus pressing his case in front of a tribunal of scholars and priests:
The hall of the old convent presented a striking spectacle. A simple mariner standing forth in the midst of an imposing array of clerical and collegiate sages; maintaining his theory with natural eloquence, and, as it were, pleading the cause of the new world. . . . Columbus was assailed with citations from the Bible, and the works of the early fathers of the church, which were thought incompatible with his theory: doctrinal points were mixed up with philosophical discussions, and even a mathematical demonstration was allowed no truth, if it appeared to clash with a text of scripture, or a commentary of one of the fathers.At this dramatic turning point in Columbus’s story, Columbus is cast as holding his own against the forces of received knowledge and tradition, hierarchy and authority. In this iteration, the story of Columbus becomes the story of an enlightened individual challenging a stereotypically “medieval” mindset: a quasi-Catholic hero for an anti-Catholic United States.
Yet as the nineteenth century unfolded, America’s Columbus became increasingly Catholic. A great deal of this change can be traced to American Catholics themselves, to their appropriation of Columbus as a hero who could tie them to the nation’s mythic past. Beginning in the 1860s, Italian Catholic immigrants celebrated the anniversary of Columbus’s landing, and gave the celebration a religious flavor: in 1869 in San Francisco, their celebration of “Discovery Day” began with a Catholic mass and involved a procession with a statue of Columbus, similar to a saint’s day festa. Irish Catholic immigrants founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882, and they joined other immigrant societies and the Catholic press in lobbying for the creation of an official, federal Columbus Day.
|Jacques Marquette, statue in marble, by Gaetano Trentanove. Presented by Wisconsin to the U.S. Capitol, 1896. Part of the National Statuary Hall collection. Source: http://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/national-statuary-hall-collection/jacques-marquette.|
|Junípero Serra, statue in bronze, by Ettore Cadorin. Presented by California to the U.S. Capitol, 1931. Part of the National Statuary Hall collection. Source: |
At least some of the people celebrating Marquette and Serra saw an explicit connection to Columbus. During the fight to place the statue of Marquette in the Capitol in the 1890s, Marquette supporters argued that if the country could rally behind Columbus, why couldn’t it rally behind Marquette? The Chicago Daily Tribune warned: “If these resolutions [objecting to the Marquette statue] were to be adopted, they would be followed by others demanding the removal of that of Columbus from the Capitol, because he was a Spaniard and a fervent Catholic.” Such an outcome, the paper implied, would be ridiculous. The existence of one Catholic as a founding hero implied the possibility of including more. Tourist literature in California invoked Columbus as well. Take, for example, promotional material put out by the Automobile Club of Southern California in 1915: “What Columbus, Washington and Lincoln have been to the United States of America,” the club proclaimed, “Father Junípero Serra . . . has been to California.”
What, then, can we make of this emergence of Catholic founding figures? To promoters of Marquette and Serra, it often meant the inclusion of their regions’ histories in the national story, a story that they complained (with justification) had too long been dominated by Puritans, Pilgrims, and the East Coast. To many Catholics, and to their non-Catholic allies, it meant a more inclusive, cross-confessional group of national heroes, potentially powerful symbols of Catholic national belonging in a society marked by anti-Catholicism. Finally, it meant that in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, many American Catholics and Protestants were united by their embrace of heroic interpretations of European exploration and empire, Christian evangelization and territorial acquisition. While they challenged exclusively Protestant notions of the nation’s origins and identity, they reinforced the idea that the United States was—from coast to coast—an essentially Christian nation born out of a Christianizing, civilizing project. At the dawn of the American century, this too was a legacy of Columbus Day.
There are interesting theories that Columbus might have been Jewish, but since my subject is the myth rather than the man, those theories will be left for others to explore.
Washington Irving, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, abridged ed. (New York: G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1829), 41-42.
Gerald McKevitt, “Christopher Columbus as a Civic Saint: Angelo Noce and Italian American Assimilation,” California History 71, no. 4 (January 1992): 518.
K. Gerald Marsden, “Father Marquette and the A.P.A.: An Incident in American Nativism,” The Catholic Historical Review 46, no. 1 (April 1960): 8.
“Text of Coolidge Speech Before Commerce Club,” Chicago Evening Post, 4 December 1924.
“The Marquette Statue,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 2 March 1896.
Automobile Club of Southern California, California’s Mission Tour (Los Angeles: Geo. Rice & Sons, 1915).