The Secret History of Columbus Day.

The vast majority of the early settlers of British North America were Protestants. They brought with them a folk memory of how English Catholics had been seen—often correctly—as disloyal to the British government and in the service of foreign princes who wished to establish absolute monarchies that would force people to abandon their own faith to become Catholics. Protestantism and Catholicism regarded each other as defective faiths, rather than legitimate religions. From the late 18th Century on, the Catholic Church sided with autocratic governments and systematic ignorance. The Church opposed everything desired by progressive people of the day: representative governments, elections, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, freedom of the press, individual civil rights, and modern science. The Church had maintained an Inquisition to repress heresy (wrong belief) and an Index of Banned Books that no Catholic should read. Occasionally, the Church kidnapped Jewish children who had been secretly baptized by Christians, and raised them as Catholics.[1] Moreover, in theory, Catholics owed their first loyalty to the Pope, rather than to the government of whatever country they happened to live in. Protestants in all countries despised Catholics as a primitive people who were slaves to the orders of their priests.

Catholic immigrants—from Ireland, Italy, and Germany—got a hostile reception from Protestant America. To make matters worse, the Irish and Italians, were poor country people. Usually they were illiterate and generally had no technical skills. Hence, they took the lowest-paying and least-regarded jobs when they first arrived in America. Their desperation for work dragged down wages for the native-born population. During the 1830s and 1840s, anti-Catholic sentiment boiled over in brawls, riots, press campaigns, and “Nativist” political parties.

The problem for Catholics lay in how to make themselves acceptable in a hostile foreign society. One solution came through associating themselves with the history of America from its earliest times. Italian-Americans first celebrated Columbus Day in New York City’s “Little Italy” in 1866. In 1882 Catholic Americans led by an Irish-American priest founded the “Knights of Columbus” as a device to help impoverished immigrants and promote Catholic education. The organization grew like wild-fire among Irish and Italian immigrants and their descendants. It emphasized the union of Americanism and Catholicism.

In 1892 President Benjamin Harrison proposed that Americans celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World. Various dignitaries and un-dignitaries used the occasion to laud such ideals as patriotism and social progress. School-children recited the “Pledge of Allegiance” for the first time as part of the celebration.

Angelo Noce, an Italian immigrant who had become a citizen and who lived in Denver, Colorado took it into his head to press to make Columbus Day a Colorado state holiday. In 1905 the governor of Colorado decreed 12 October to be a state holiday.

In 1934, the Knights of Columbus and an Italian-American leader in New York City named Generoso Pope (the founder of the National Enquirer), got newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim Columbus Day as a national holiday. Roosevelt needed the Italian vote, so he agreed.

Now “progressive” people want to use the date to validate the long-neglected Native Americans. Why not? Catholics now are fully-integrated into American society. They don’t need it. And it isn’t as much fun as Saint Patrick’s Day. Still, that leaves Asian-Americans.

[1] See David Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (New York: Random House, 1997) for one example that attracted much attention.

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