Columbus’s public image has changed many times over the past five hundred years. He was a figure well-known, if not well loved, by Americans in the Colonial Era, a name children memorized in school. The educated Brahman class of the Early Republic even threw him a party of sorts in 1792 to celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the New World. But as the United States cleaved itself off from Great Britain, the nation sought out new stories that would distinguish it from mother England. In this environment, Columbus gained new popularity. Here was a figure that pre-dated British colonization of the New World, who was not British himself, yet who set the stage for the advancements by Euro-Americans in the centuries to come. This is the analysis of Claudia Bushman, author of the excellent book America Discovers Columbus: How an Italian Explorer Became an American Hero. Only in the late 19th century did Columbus become the superstar that he remains today, hurled aloft by the spectacle of the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1892-3.
Even at the height of popularity, though, Columbus meant different things to different people. White Protestants viewed him as a man who brought Christianity to the New World, whereas Italians and Irish viewed him as the pioneer of Catholicism in America, the herald of their own immigration four hundred years later. Indeed, the years around the Columbian Exposition of 1893 saw the rise of what Bushman calls “Catholic Columbianism” a fierce pride in Catholicism and the American nation. Irish Catholics had tried to develop fraternal organizations around many famous figures and concepts. ( The Ancient Order of Foresters, formed by some Catholic parishioners, confused everyone and was quickly discarded as a title). In 1881, they struck upon the “Knights of Columbus” an organization that was fraternal, Catholic, filled with martial imagery, and avoided hot-button terms like “Irish” and “Italian” which might have put off other ethnic groups. Under this title, Catholic Columbianism flourished, gained broader credibility for its civic work, all the while pushing for increased recognition of Columbus as an “American” hero. By 1909, the K of C (among other groups) had helped establish Columbus Day as a state holiday in 10 states including Connecticut.
Bushman ends her discussion of Columbus in the early 20th century, showing how broadly popular he had become with many different groups. We fast forward to 1992 when the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World provokes a very mixed reaction, particularly from Native Americans. What I find interesting about the Lafayette-Columbus debate in Hartford is that it demonstrates that he remained a contested figure even after all of the pomp and circumstance of the Columbian Exposition and the efforts of the K of C, a flash-point of ethnic controversy. While I haven’t looked at the reception of other Columbus monuments outside of Hartford, I do know that one monument, the Columbus monument in New Haven, CT (headquarters of the K of C, no less), became the meeting ground for Italian Americans protesting the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
These early twentieth century protests against Columbus had nothing to do with Native Americans, genocide, slavery etc. They seem to play out between different groups of ethnic Euro-Americans: those who immigrated earlier from Western Europe early vs. those Catholic immigrants who arrived from Ireland and Italy late.
I hope to have more on this story after I do some more digging.