I was born at a time before it was understood that the purpose of federal holidays was to provide public employees with a three-day weekend, which is another way of saying that I began grammar school before the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971. This means that I can remember when Columbus Day came every October 12th, instead of the Monday closest to that date. This—along with the fact that I didn’t think of it until now—will explain why I am two days late posting this piece about Columbus Day.
I’m not an expert on Columbus—far from it—and I feel ill equipped to tackle the weighty moral questions embedded in the larger debate about whether as a nation we should have an annual holiday honoring this Genoese sailor. I’ll leave that minefield to others and simply say that I’ve long found the history of popular memory of Columbus a great way to help students think about the nature of history.
Regardless of the specific course that I am teaching, the first thing that I want my students to understand is that history is not the same thing as the past. Coming to grips with this bedrock principle is the first, indispensable step to thinking historically.
Academic historians don’t agree on a single, “official” definition of history, but whatever definition they embrace, it always preserves this fundamental distinction. You’ll find some who define history as the recreation of the past, others who speak of it as the analysis or interpretation of the past, or even as a never-ending argument about the past. Actually, it’s all of these things. The definition I like best, however, comes from Christian historian John Lukacs, who defines history as “the remembered past.”
The power of this pithy definition is remarkable. Once we begin to think consciously of historical knowledge as a form of memory, the analogy points us to a host of important insights into the nature and function of history. Like our individual memories, historical memory is invariably imperfect; it is faulty, it changes over time, and it is unavoidably influenced by our perspective. I’ve found that a great way to illustrate that final point is to talk with my students about how Americans have remembered the events of 1492 across the centuries.
In 1692, the year of the bicentennial of Columbus’ first voyage, few if any American colonists celebrated the occasion because few if any had even heard of Christopher Columbus. If history is the remembered past, then it is true to say that, for English colonists in 1692, Columbus’ “discovery” of America was not a part of “history” as they knew it.
By 1792, the free citizens of the newly independent United States had discovered Columbus’ “discovery” and were eager to honor the Italian explorer unknown to their ancestors. While the movement to name the new nation “Columbia” has failed, the Congress had recently agreed to designate the future seat of the federal government the District of Columbia in his honor. Only a few years earlier, the New York state legislature had changed the name of King’s College to Columbia in recognition of the master mariner. (Before all was said and done, forty-four cities or counties would take the name Columbus or Colombia in the explorer’s honor.) No longer part of the British Empire, Americans were struggling to define a new identity, and a new identity required a new heritage less firmly rooted in an English past.
In 1892, on the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ initial voyage, Americans celebrated for an entire year. Italian Americans raised money to erect a monument to the Italian Columbus in New York City. Irish Catholics praised the Catholic Columbus and joined a newly formed organization aimed at making them “better Catholics and Citizens” known as the Knights of Columbus. The nation invited the world to Chicago for the first World’s Fair, known as the “World’s Columbian Exposition.”
In 1992, by contrast, the nation was badly divided as to how to acknowledge the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage—was it a “discovery”? was it an “invasion”?—and in the end the country did relatively little to observe the occasion. After extensive debate the United Nations decided not to sponsor any recognition of the event, and the National Council of Churches resolved that the anniversary should be a “time of penitence rather than jubilation.” In years since, a growing number of states and municipalities have moved away from observing the holiday and some have moved toward replacing it with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
When I ask my students what might explain the difference, they understand almost immediately that our changing memories of 1492 have at least as much to do with the present as with the past. How could it be otherwise? If history is the “remembered past,” then history, by definition, exists at the intersection of past and present and is inseparable from both. When it comes to Columbus specifically, our changing priorities and values are always informing how we remember the man. As writer John Noble Wilford put it a quarter-century ago, Columbus’ “destiny is to serve as a barometer of our . . . hopes and aspirations” and our evolving conceptions of the just society.