Driven in large part by political correctness and partisan academics, it has become fashionable in recent years to criticize Christopher Columbus and the holiday named in his honor. However, unfair attacks on Columbus, past and present, should not be allowed to obscure the truth about the man, his voyage and his motives.
Born in Genoa, Italy in 1451, Columbus was a man on intense faith in God and tremendous courage who was willing to go against the grain. He believed that by sailing a mere 3,000 miles across the Atlantic he could reach the shores of Asia. Such a passage would establish faster and easier trade routes than were possible through overland travel or by sailing around the tip of Africa, east of the Orient. Despite his miscalculation, after 10 weeks he did indeed find land, not Asia, but an entirely new continent which was later to be called America, named by another Italian explored, Amerigo Vespucci.
Beginning in the 1840s, waves of European immigrants swelled the ranks of Catholics in the United States and, along with that, came an increasingly anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant backlash. Catholics were subjected to discrimination, slander, anti-Catholic propaganda, and sometimes mob violence.
It was in this hostile environment that Father Michael J. McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882. He and his fellow Knights chose as the Order’s patron, Christopher Columbus, one of the the few Catholics considered a hero in American history up to that time. The explorer represented both Catholicism and patriotism at the very root of American heritage. A decade later, President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed a national Columbus holiday.
In 1934, with a strong support from the Knights, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress made Columbus Day a federal holiday. The first observance was Oct. 12, 1937.