Letters From an American

Owning History

A nation grounded in fiction, rather than reality, cannot function.

Owning History

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially instituted Columbus Day in 1934, but the idea for the holiday rose in the 1920s, when the Knights of Columbus tried to undercut the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan by emphasizing the role minorities had played in America. (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

October 12, 2020

According to a proclamation from the president, today is officially “Columbus Day,” when we honor the “many immeasurable contributions of Italy to American history.” The president’s proclamation goes on to complain that “in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy” by replacing a recognition of his “vast contributions” with talk of failings, atrocities, and transgressions.

Trump’s proclamation goes on: “Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister. They seek to squash any dissent from their orthodoxy.” He notes the steps he has taken to “promote patriotic education:” he signed an Executive Order to create a National Garden of American Heroes, set up “the 1776 Commission, which will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and honor our founding,” and signed an Executive Order “to root out the teaching of racially divisive concepts from the Federal workplace.”

For all of Trump’s attention to patriotic education, his proclamation is quite bad history. Aside from its whitewashing of the effects of Columbus’s voyage of “discovery,” the proclamation misrepresents the original point of Columbus Day, which had a lot more to do with putting down white supremacy than celebrating the “enduring significance” of Columbus in opening “a new chapter in world history.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially instituted Columbus Day in 1934, but the idea for the holiday rose in the 1920s, when the Knights of Columbus tried to undercut the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan by emphasizing the role minorities had played in America. In the early 1920s, the organization published three books in a “Knights of Columbus Racial Contributions” series, including The Gift of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois. They celebrated the contributions of immigrants, especially Catholic immigrants, to America with parades honoring Christopher Columbus. The Knights of Columbus were determined to reinforce the idea that America must not be a land of white Protestant supremacy.

Trump’s words about patriotic education also ring hollow when the news of the day makes it seem that the administration is more interested in staying in power than in protecting our democratic government.

Today was the first day of early voting in Georgia, and a record 126,876 voters cast ballots. In the state’s Democratic areas some people had to wait in line for as long as ten hours to vote.

Trump’s contribution to early voting today was to tweet “California is going to hell. Vote Trump!” and “New York has gone to hell. Vote Trump!” and “Illinois has no place to go. Sad, isn’t it? Vote Trump!” Once again, he insisted that he has a healthcare plan, although he has been promising such a plan since before his inauguration and none has ever materialized. “We will have Healthcare which is FAR BETTER than ObamaCare, at a FAR LOWER COST – BIG PREMIUM REDUCTION. PEOPLE WITH PRE EXISTING CONDITIONS WILL BE PROTECTED AT AN EVEN HIGHER LEVEL THAN NOW. HIGHLY UNPOPULAR AND UNFAIR INDIVIDUAL MANDATE ALREADY TERMINATED. YOU’RE WELCOME!”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s top infectious disease specialists who is advising the White House, is openly angry that the Trump campaign took his words out of context to make it seem like he was applauding the administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He said that, by using his words misleadingly and against his will, the Trump campaign is “in effect harassing me.” Fauci’s anger hasn’t stopped the campaign, which today broke precedent to use an image of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley in a campaign ad. The image was used without Milley’s knowledge or consent, and violates the military’s strict policies against participation in political campaigns.

An article in the New York Times today outlines how the administration appears to be trying to buy votes by funneling money to key constituencies before the election. Trump has said he is sending $200 cards to seniors to help them pay for drug prescriptions. He approved $13 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, which could help win him votes in Florida (politicians often campaign in territories or even foreign countries from which immigrants come because it helps them win votes at home). He has required the Agriculture Department to enclose letters in both English and Spanish in its food distributions to families giving Trump credit for both “sending nutritious food” and “safeguarding the health and well-being of our citizens.”

The administration will also distribute $46 billion (not a typo) to farmers in the South and Midwest who have been whacked by Trump’s trade war with China and coronavirus, to try to offset the record farm debt accumulating and the rise in farm bankruptcies, although it appears the money goes primarily to big operations.

Instead of using the presidency to protect the interests of the nation, Trump appears to be using it as a money-making operation for his family. The New York Times on Saturday continued its series on Trump’s taxes, showing how he turned his hotels and resorts into “a system of direct presidential influence-peddling unrivaled in modern American politics.” Under terrible financial stress, the president used his office to line his pockets. Foreign politicians, businessmen, and contractors who wanted federal contracts would throw pricey events, donate to Trump’s campaign, or buy memberships at Trump’s properties—he raised the membership fee at Mar-a-Lago to $250,000– where Trump would often be there to help them get what they wanted.

Looking at Trump’s record undercutting our democracy, even just for today alone, makes you wonder just what he means by “patriotic education,” and who, exactly, are the “radical activists” he attacks for not honoring “the miracle of our founding.”

Here’s the story: historians are not denigrating the nation when they uncover sordid parts of our past. Historians study how and why societies change. As we dig into the past we see patterns that never entirely foreshadow the present, but that give us ideas about how people have dealt with circumstances in the past that look similar to circumstances today. With luck, seeing those patterns will help us make better decisions about our own lives, our communities, and our nation in the present. As they say, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

If we are going to get an accurate picture of how a society works, historians must examine it honestly. That means seeing the bad as well as the good, because, after all, any human society is going to have both. Sometimes good human actions change society; sometimes bad ones do. George Washington’s heroic refusal to be a king is no truer than his enslavement of other human beings, and both changed our nation in ways that we need to understand if we are to make good decisions about how to take care of our own society.

History, though, is different than commemoration. History is about what happened in the past while commemoration is about the present. We put up statues and celebrate holidays to honor figures from the past who embody some quality we admire. But as society changes, the qualities we care about shift. In the 1920s, Columbus mattered to Americans who opposed the Ku Klux Klan because he represented a multicultural society. Now, though, he represents the devastation of America’s indigenous people at the hands of European colonists who brought to North America and South America germs and a fever for gold and God. It is not “radical activism” to want to commemorate a different set of values than we held in the 1920s.

What is radical activism, though, is the attempt to skew history to serve a modern-day political narrative. Rejecting an honest account of the past makes it impossible to see accurate patterns. The lessons we learn about how society changes will be false, and the decisions we make based on those false patterns will not be grounded in reality.

And a nation grounded in fiction, rather than reality, cannot function.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.

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