Why should we celebrate Columbus Day?
For workaholic Americans, taking another day off seems like a waste. After all, there are reports to be run, machines to be tended, facilities to be fixed, and sales to be made. And in its initial years, Columbus Day wasn’t very popular. While President Benjamin Harrison called on people to celebrate the day on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing on San Salvador in 1892, it didn’t become a state holiday until 1907, after intense lobbying by an Italian immigrant in Colorado. It wasn’t a federal holiday until 1934.
Today, there is some scholarly push-back. After all, Columbus held racist views pretty typical of his era: he saw native peoples as inferior to whites. The European settlement of the Americas that followed his voyage was devastating to native cultures. South Dakota doesn’t recognize Columbus Day, but does observe, “Native American Day,” on the same day, as does Dane County, Wisconsin and the City of Berkeley, California.
But there are good reasons to celebrate his landing, for all the controversy. For one thing, President Harrison particularly designated the schools as centers of the Columbus Day celebration. At that time education was increasingly viewed as essential for the preservation of a democratic republic. Immigration had been booming, and it was crucial for settling the frontier. Public schooling was seen as a way to acculturate these new arrivals.
In addition, the massacre of 150-200 Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1890 had recently taken place, and was a national disgrace. The first Columbus Day parades saw contingents from the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania march right next to students from the Dante Alighieri College of Astoria, New York. Columbus Day is a day to celebrate all the peoples who came to America—before and after 1492.
There was a spirit of daring and discovery that brought Europeans here in the 15th and 16th centuries. Columbus’s landing on San Salvador changed the world. That’s not a bad reason for a day off.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Chief Investment Officer
Follow me on Twitter @tengdin