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The Meaning of Columbus Day



Columbus Day is a most unusual American holiday, as it commemorates an event that occurred well before the United States was even a nation. And yet, in the five hundred years since Columbus’s sighting, the day has become distinctly American. In the late eighteenth century, Americans began to see Columbus as somewhat of a mythic founding figure; by the 1830s, he was seen as an archetype of the American ideal: bold, adventurous, innovative. Immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries rallied around the immigrant Columbus. As Ronald Reagan remarked in a 1988 speech, Columbus Day has become a day “to celebrate not only an intrepid searcher but the dreams and opportunities that brought so many here after him.”

In this ebook, we explore the historical Columbus as well as the man as symbol for American life, tracing connections between Columbus Day and the discovery of the New World, the spirit of exploration, and the immigrant experience. Each selection includes a brief introduction by the editors with guiding questions for discussion. 

Columbus Day: An American Holiday
The Origins and Traditions of Columbus Day
Benjamin Harrison, Proclamation on the 400th Anniversary of the Discover of America by Columbus
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Statement on Columbus Day
John Noble Wilford, Excerpt from “Discovering Columbus”
William J. Connell, “What Columbus Day Really Means”

Columbus: Man and Symbol
Columbus as Symbolic Founder of “Columbia”
Philip Phile and Joseph Hopkinson, “Hail, Columbia”
Timothy Dwight IV, “Ode to Columbia”
Joel Barlow, Excerpt from The Columbiad
David T. Shaw and Thomas á Becket, “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean”

Columbus as Explorer and the Spirit of Exploration
Washington Irving, “First Landing of Columbus in the New World”
James Freeman Clarke, “Columbus a Heretic and a Visionary to his Contemporaries”
John Fiske, “Excitement at the News of the Discovery”
Herbert B. Adams, “Columbus and His Discovery of America”
Nancy Byrd Turner, “Columbus” Walt Whitman, “Prayer of Columbus”
Edward Everett Hale, “Columbus” Joaquin Miller, “Columbus”
James Baldwin, “Columbus and the Egg”
Robert Frost, “America Is Hard to See”

Columbus as Immigrant and the Immigrant Experience
Editorial, “The Significance of Columbus Day to New Americans”
Theodore Roosevelt, “Americanism”
Ronald Reagan, Remarks on Signing the Columbus Day Proclamation

Columbian Themes, Enduring Questions
The New World: For Better or For Worse?
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “Was America a Mistake?”
Alexis de Tocqueville, from Democracy in America

American Adventure and Exploration
Walt Whitman, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”
Jack London, “To Build a Fire”
Frances Gilchrist Wood, “Turkey Red”
Bret Harte, “The Luck of Roaring Camp”

The Immigrant Experience
Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”
Mary Antin, from The Promised Land
Alexander Godin, “My Dead Brother Comes to America”
Mary Lerner, “Little Selves”
Richard Rodriguez, Aria, from Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez
LESSON PLAN: Becs Richert, Lesson Plan for Aria
Oscar Hijuelos, “Visitors, 1965”
Gish Jen, “In the American Society”

ABOUT THE COVER: Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ships of Columbus, 1880

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