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Mahmood Mamdani locates the founding moment of the modern nation-state at 1492. “That year marked the beginning of the nation-state… born of two developments in Iberia. One was ethnic cleansing, whereby the Castilian monarchy sought to create a homogeneous national homeland for Christian Spaniards by ejecting and converting those among them who were strangers to the nation—Moors and Jews. The other development was the taking of overseas colonies in the Americas by the same Castilian monarchy that spearheaded ethnic cleansing. In this story, modern colonialism was not something that states started doing in the eighteenth century. Modern colonialism and the modern state were born together with the creation of the nation-state. Nationalism did not precede colonialism. Nor was colonialism the highest or the final stage in the making of a nation. The two were co-constituted.”
“Discovery” and the Cult of Columbus
A few months after Catholic entry into ethnically cleansed Granada, the monarchs contracted with a Genoese mercenary who promised he could reach India by sailing west, landing, not in already European “discovered” India, rather on an island of what are now called the Bahamas where the longtime indigenous residents informed him that to the north and south and east and west stretched a huge landmass, two massive continents teeming cities and vast tens of millions of acres of farmlands that produced the major portion of humanity’s food production, all of which the rapacious crusading mercenaries representing Christendom were unaware. Two decades later a Spanish army would possess the heart of that land mass, destroying the most populated city in the world at the time, Tenochtitlan, in the valley of Mexico.
October 12, 1492 is etched in brains of every living human as the day of “discovery,” but which the Indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere and of Africa and descendants of enslaved Africans regard as the symbol of infamy, domination, slavery, and genocide. Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes, “To call ‘discovery’ the first invasions of inhabited lands by Europeans as an exercise in Eurocentric power that already frames future narratives of the event so described … Once discovered by Europeans, the Other finally enters the human world.”
The first formal celebration of Columbus in the United States came five years after the Constitution was ratified — the tricentennial of discovery on October 12, 1792. It was organized by the Tammany Society, also called the Columbian Order, that was founded in 1789, by a group of wealthy men in New York City. An obelisk dedicated to Columbus was erected in Baltimore in 1792, the first known monument to Columbus in North America. Although Bolivarian independence revolutionaries named Gran Colombia after Columbus, the independent states founded from the former Spanish colonies did not take up celebrating Columbus until the 1920s, even then and now not as a formal holiday. In 1937, at the behest of the Knights of Columbus, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day an official federal holiday.
So, why did the United States, which at its founding had no direct geographical, calendar, or colonizing link to Columbus, embed the event and date as its very founding? Historian Claudia Bushman thinks the cult of Columbus rose in part because it eschewed the English source of U.S. existence and located its origins to first founder. “Columbia,” meaning the land of Columbus, rather than “Columbus” was used for honoring Columbus at first. Columbia University was founded in 1754 as King’s College and was renamed Columbia College when it reopened in 1784 after independence. And, the federal capital was named the District of Columbia. The 1798 hymn “Hail, Columbia” was the early national anthem and is now used whenever the vice president of the United States makes a public appearance. By 1777, a year after the settlers of the thirteen British North American colonies declared independence, the poet Philip Freneau named what would become the United States of America, “Columbia, America as sometimes so called from Columbus, the first discoverer.” There were others who advocated that the thirteen states should adopt the name “Columbia.” South Carolina named its capital Columbia. Brian Hardwerk observes, “Columbus also provided a convenient way to forget about America’s original inhabitants.” Bushman notes that “In early American textbooks from the 1700s Columbus is the first chapter. Columbus starts American history. There’s nothing about the Indians … Some of these books even show pictures of Columbus in colonial era clothing.”
Most significant though is that Columbus represented imperialism for the original founders and the continuing ruling class. In 1846, U.S. Senator from Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton, who was basking in the glory of U.S. Senate’s declaration of war against Mexico, explained to Congress that the war was a continuation of Columbus’s vision, “the grand idea of Columbus” who in “going west to Asia” provided the United States with its true course of empire, a predestinated “American Road to India.” Benton also explained the racial impact of the arrival of the “White race” on the west coast, “opposite the eastern coast of Asia” would be a benefit claiming that the “White race” was unique in having received “divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth,” being the only race that searched for new and distant lands. In 1861, a twenty by thirty-foot mural was installed in the U.S. capitol building, titled “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way,” symbolizing manifest destiny. The painter, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, was born in Germany in 1816, his family immigrating to the United States in 1825. His first work was titled “Columbus before the Council of Salamanca,” followed by a companion piece titled, “Columbus in Chains.” In a tribute to the European radical revolutions of 1848, which he supported, he painted “Washington Crossing the Delaware” in hopes the revolutionists would be inspired by the U.S. war of independence establishing the white republic.
Mamdani’s argument that the nation-state was born in 1492 is validated by the conscious mythical founding of the United States as a white republic, that like the establishment of the Spanish nation-state, was founded on white supremacy and ethnic cleansing. Required courses in history were incorporated into U.S. school curricula in the early nineteenth century introducing children and young people to Columbus practically as an ancestor. But, clearly Columbus took on a renewed significance and purpose with the increasing presence of the Catholic Church and the millions of Irish and Eastern and Southern European immigrants, most of them Catholic, particularly the four million Italians who arrived between 1890 and 1920. Trouillot writes that “ethnicity gave Columbus a lobby, a prerequisite to public success in U.S. culture.” In 1866, there were fewer than four thousand Italian-Americans and only a few Spaniards in the United States, yet they already celebrated October 12 in New York, and commemorations subsequently spread to Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston., Cincinnati, New Orleans, and San Francisco. But, the real boost for Columbus came from another source, Irish-Americans and the Catholic Church with the 1882 establishment of the Knights of Columbus.
The Knights of Columbus and Americanization
In the February 11, 1882 edition of “Connecticut Catholic,” an Irish-American newspaper owned and edited by a Catholic layman, came the news: “Pursuant to a call issued by Rev. Fr. McGivney — over sixty young men assembled in the basement of St. Mary’s Church last Tuesday evening, February 7, 1882 and formed a cooperative benefit order to be known as the Knights of Columbus.” Father McGivney proposed Columbus as patron to the organization while James T. Mullen, who became the first “Supreme Knight” suggested the full name, “Knights of Columbus,” to better evoke the ritualist character of the order. Dr. Matthew C. O’Connor, the first “Supreme Physician” asserted that Columbus was to signify that as Catholic descendants of Columbus, they “were entitled to all rights and privileges due to such a discovery by one of our father.” Although the Knights attracted Italian immigrants later in the century, the founding was largely an Irish-American project. Notre Dame historian Thomas Schlereth notes that the Irish-American founders “apparently never entertained the idea of naming themselves after St. Brendan.” He explains that for the Catholics of New Haven, it had to be Columbus, mainly because Columbus was already embraced a symbol of the authentic U.S. American and helped remove them from the stigma of nativism was a symbol providing, as they put it, “social legitimacy and patriotic loyalty.” As Catholic descendants of Columbus, they were entitled to “all the rights and privileges due such a discovery by one of our faith.”
By the time of the four-hundred-year anniversary of their namesake, the Knights of Columbus were located in every state and soon would spread all over Canada, Mexico, and the Philippines and become the largest body of Catholic laymen in the world with over two million members at the turn of the twenty-first century. Catholic historian Christopher J. Kaufman writes, “By adopting Columbus as their patron, this small group of New Haven Irish-American Catholics displayed their pride in America’s Catholic heritage, evoking the aura of Catholicity and affirming the ‘discovery’ of America as a Catholic event.” But it was also a patriotic event, Kaufman notes, “The society’s ceremonials led the initiates on a journey into council chambers where, with symbol, metaphor, and Catholic fellowship, they were taught the lessons of Columbianism: a strong attachment to the faith, a pride in American Catholic heritage … and a duty to understand and defend the faith against its enemies, in short to display loyalty to Catholicism and to the flag.” In 1882, Thomas Cummings said to fellow members of the newly formed Knights of Columbus, “Under the inspiration of Him whose name we bear, and with the story of Columbus life as exemplified in our beautiful ritual, we have the broadest kind of basis for patriotism and true love of country.”
The organization spread rapidly in the northeast with the backing of well to do Irish-Americans and emphasized the shaping of “citizen culture.” Trouillot notes that “Columbus played a leading role in making citizens out of these immigrants. He provided them with a public example of Catholic devotion and civic virtue, and thus a powerful rejoinder to the cliché that allegiance to Rome preempted the Catholics’ attachment to the United States.” This was the beginning of the Americanization project at work, capped by the quadricentennial celebrations of Columbus in 1892-1893.
Columbus in the White City
By 1892, twenty-eight monuments to Columbus had been erected in cities around the country, more than in any other country. Some were statues on pedestals, others are fountains and arches, and some freestanding columns. Many have Columbus holding or viewing a globe or sometimes an American eagle. Columbus Day festivities began being held in various cities in the 1860s, so by the time of the quadricentennial, the Columbus cult was firmly in place. Throughout 1892, there were local celebrations all over the country, leading up to October 12, then to the 1493 quadricentennial national celebration of Columbus extravaganza. It was a love fest for western European and U.S. American triumphal colonialism and imperialism, which was at its genocidal apex with the United States government’s total colonization of its now full continental shape. Plans began for the World’s Fair Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1890 around the time of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry’s massacre of hundreds of Lakota refugees at Wounded Knee, marking the occasion not only a celebration of Columbus, but of colonial victory.
The official guide to the event, which was funded by the U.S. Congress, downplayed the preceding 280 years of Euroamerican history in colonial North America, stating that it was only “preparatory period” to the rise of the United States, informing that :“Most fitting it is, therefore, that the people of the greatest nation on the continent discovered by Christopher Columbus, should lead in the celebration of the Four Hundredth Anniversary of that event.” The site of the fair in South Chicago was nicknamed the “White City” for the massive and glistening white fake-marble buildings constructed specifically for the fair, not meant to be permanent, rather templates for how a future city should appear, grandiose and imposing, as well as symbolizing the triumph of capitalism.
A circus of sorts, central to the White City was the Ferris Wheel, which was invented for the occasion. Not far away, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave his “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” address to the American Historical Association, which held its annual meeting at the Exposition, while Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performed nearby. Without mentioning the Wounded Knee massacre of two years earlier, Turner chose the year 1890 as the demarcation of the end of the frontier, warning that the seemingly endless moving frontier of white settlement that had formed the U.S. American character and culture had closed, and the future was not clear. Buffalo Bill had the answer: fantasy, reenactment, premiering the soon to be born western movies.
Christian Socialist and ordained Baptist minister Francis Bellamy wrote a pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag in 1892, which was a presidential election year in addition to being the quadricentennial of Columbus. Both presidential candidates, Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, urged the use of the new pledge as a way of honoring Columbus. The pledge originated for the purpose of advancing patriotism by flying the flag in every school in the country along with reciting the pledge. Bellamy led the way in organizing teachers to use a packaged Columbus Day educational kit. In an amazing feat, on October 21, 1892, they got twelve million schoolchildren around the country to join a hundred thousand Chicago schoolchildren to simultaneously salute the flag and recite the pledge of allegiance. In 1954, thanks to intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, the words “one nation under God” was added to Bellamy’s pledge of allegiance.
The United States racialized caste system was on display in the form of live displays of levels of humanity. Nearest to the White City were the Teutonic and Celtic races, represented by two German and two Irish displays, illustrating the Irish climb to whiteness. Next came the Muslim and Asian worlds, then an African in the Dahomean Village, and then at the remotest location from the White City, the North American Indian. Frederick Douglass was present at the Fair as a representative of the government of Haiti and was incensed by the Dahomean Village. He castigated the organizers complaining that his race was being misrepresented by the “barbaric rites” of “African savages brought here to act the monkey.” A measure of the success of the Chicago extravaganza was the naturalization of Columbus as first founder, which rationalized and justified the U.S. occupation of continent. In 1892, historians were already projecting a century ahead to celebrate the Columbus quincentennial, suggesting that Columbus, Ohio, be the center for the occasion, which actually happened with the AmeriFlora exposition in Columbus, Ohio, in 1992. As Trouillot observes, in order to make Columbus the discoverer of the United States, it was necessary to whiten him. Anglo-American was the definition of whiteness, and clearly Columbus was not Anglo, was not American, and did not speak English. While Columbus was becoming whiter, racism against Italian-Americans was at its height in the United States.
Like the mass of Irish famine refugees who preceded them four decades earlier, the majority of the four million Italian immigrants were fleeing grinding rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily. They were peasants stuck in medieval socio-economic relations as well while others were proletarian sharecroppers and migrant farm workers, all without skills beyond agriculture. In the United States, they were met with endless insults in newspapers and magazines, describing them as “swarthy,” “kinky haired” criminally inclined, regarded as racially impure in an era of the pseudo race theory of eugenics. They were often refused access to schools for their children, turned away from public places and labor unions, and even in church, forced into church pews set aside for Black worshipers. They were catcalled on the streets with epithets like “dago,” “guinea” — a term of derision applied to enslaved Africans and their descendants — and more racist insults like “white nigger” and “nigger wop.” In 1912, the U.S. House Committee on Immigration debated whether Italians could be considered “full-blooded Caucasians” and immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe were considered “biologically and culturally less intelligent.”
Employers often preferred Slovaks and Poles to Italians. Railroad bosses wouldn’t hire them because of their small stature. In the mining industry, English-speaking workers held the skilled and supervisory positions while Italians were hired as laborers. Even those who were educated and skilled were unable to secure any jobs besides unskilled labor. Only in the 1920s did Italians became more integrated into the work force. More immigrants started to work semi-skilled jobs in factories as well as skilled positions, but a third remained in unskilled positions. Even Italian-American union members faced prejudice with meetings held in English, and Italians were not elected to official positions.
Three years after the Chicago fair, a group of Italians in New York formed the Sons of Columbus Legion to celebrate future Columbus anniversaries, mingling with the Irish and the Knights of Columbus who had succeeded in getting the 76-foot Columbus Monument installed in the center of Columbus Circle in New York in 1892. By then the Irish had spread throughout the country “with the full benefits of white status … Columbus himself … became more Irish than ever — until Italian-Americans made new gains in the continuing contest for racial and historical legitimacy …” The Knights lobbied state legislatures to establish October 12 as a legal holiday, and by 1912, they had won over fourteen states, and two decades later convinced the Roosevelt administration to make it a federal holiday.
The oppressed masses of Italian immigrants would also find the attachment to Columbus an avenue to acceptance. Representing Columbus as “first founder” of the United States served to connect being Catholic and being Italian with the eventual birth of the United States, therefore, Italian immigrants could present themselves as Italian descendants of the original Italian founder, not so much as immigrants, but returnees, as part of the origin story of the United States. Historian Danielle Battisti shows how the rewriting of history by casting Columbus as “the first immigrant,” even though he never set foot on the continental land mass that became the United States, and was never an immigrant himself, and even though the English colonies that became the United States did not exist in 1492. Later, in 1965, when Italian-Americans campaigned to overturn immigration exclusion restrictions, they employed the origin story based on Columbus to great effect.
Matthew Frye Jacobson observes that “…race is absolutely central to the history of European immigration and settlement.” That centrality was based in the founding naturalization law that “white persons” were allowed to immigrate and become citizens. “The Europeanness — that is to say, whiteness — was among the most important possessions one could lay claim to. It was their whiteness, not any kind of New World magnanimity, that opened the Golden Door” Even so, as we have seen, they had to earn “whiteness.” In 1971, James Baldwin captured the tragedy of the immigrants who chased whiteness: “I had my fill of seeing people come down the gangplank on Wednesday, let us say, speaking not a word of English, and by Friday discovering that I was working for them and they were calling me nigger like everybody else. So that the Italian adventure or even the Jewish adventure, however grim, is distinguished from my own adventure.” Baldwin critiqued how the immigrants’ pursuing the lie of white supremacy “helped to steal the vitality from immigrant communities … And in the debasement and defamation of Black people, they debased and defamed themselves.” He wrote, “white people are not white; part of the price of the ticket is to delude themselves into believing that they are.” Baldwin characterized the United States as a destination where Europeans of all sorts could be melded in contrast to “Negroes” and “Indians.” He writes, “No one was white before he/she came to America,” rather they were Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, English, French, Swiss, Norwegian. In the white Republic, one is either white, or not.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. She is the winner of the 2017 Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize, and is the author or editor of many books, including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, a recipient of the 2015 American Book Award. She lives in San Francisco. Connect with her at reddirtsite.com or on Twitter @rdunbaro.
This essay is chapter 7 from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s forthcoming book, Not a Nation of Immigrants: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion (Beacon Press, 2021).