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Ambrose gives Columbus Day lecture

Thomas M. Baker
Staff writer
Posted 10/24/19

CLINTON — Christopher Columbus himself is not celebrated on the second Monday in October in America, rather it’s the idea of the man that’s commemorated said Alexander Hamilton Institute …

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Ambrose gives Columbus Day lecture


CLINTON — Christopher Columbus himself is not celebrated on the second Monday in October in America, rather it’s the idea of the man that’s commemorated said Alexander Hamilton Institute Charter Fellow Douglas Ambrose on Monday, Oct. 14 at AHI headquarters.

Kicking off the new AHI lecture series, Hamilton College Professor Ambrose proceeded to give a highly-energized 60-minute oration explaining how, and why, the idea for the national holiday came to fruition over the centuries since the man who sailed the ocean blue ultimately became a myth.

“Tonight is not about Columbus,” Ambrose said. “In fact, he’s kind of a peripheral figure to Columbus Day. He’s much more of a symbol. The day is less about him, and been historically less about him than what different generations of Americans and different places, different times, and different ethnicities and different religious orientations projected on to him — what they made him into.”

Ambrose said most people know the “historical” account of Columbus they learned in elementary school, but there’s other stories — the story about Columbus in American memory and he story in American culture.

First, Professor Ambrose said he was actually older than Columbus Day.

Columbus had been forgotten within decades of death in the early 16th century, and doesn't get but a passing mention by New England Puritan Cotten Mathers in the 18th century. But it’s not until the time of the American Revolution when the first real attention is paid to Columbus, with mentions from the likes of New England minister and pamphleteer, Philip Furneaux and poets Joel Barlow and Phyllis Wheatley, that give him credibility.

They are the first to really mention Columbus by name. The explorer gave the Anglo-Americans someone to identify with they could promote as the founder of America, as opposed to the British who were more fond of giving that distinction to explorer John Cabot, who sailed under the British flag and found North America in 1497, claiming Canada for the English crown.

Ambrose continued to describe how that kicked off a surge of “Columbia” phenomenon or a campaign with the naming of Columbia University, and 16 periodicals and 18 books with “Columbia” in the title, published between 1790 and 1825. An early Republican America crafted an identity and the triumph of the Columbian image in the American mind. The New World claimed for itself sort of a genealogy that goes back to the old world. Using Columbus as a figure, his image was used to explain their history. Out of this came the capital city of Ohio, The District of Columbia (Washington) and the Columbia River.

Oddly enough, Ambrose said Columbus was never painted in his lifetime, so no real record exists of what the man looked like. No books describe him either. So all the statues, the pictures of him in history books and every other likeness of him are all artists’ interpretations.

In 1892, the 400th commemoration of Columbus was held with the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Nearly 25 million people attended the event in a six-month period. The Knights of Columbus, a fraternal order of Catholics, begin to promote civic engagement and began to lobby state legislators for Columbus to have his own holiday. But as Ambrose describes it, it’s not because the Knights believed Columbus was so worthy, it was because the identification with him for the Catholics was about satisfying the prejudice of the Protestants in the 19th century.

In 1907, Columbus Day was first observed in Colorado after the lobbying of Angelo Noce, a first generation Italian-American. Due to the continued lobbing of Knights of Columbus members, the holiday was established in 1937 through presidential proclamation. But it wasn’t until 1971 that it was established a national holiday.

Ambrose closed his talk by explaining that the draw to Columbus were the adjectives that were used to describe him. These quintessential “American” traits the people of the early 20th century wanted to identify with, were characteristics like perseverance, courage and fortitude.

“He’s the initiator,” Ambrose said. “He’s the self-made man.”

Ambrose said he was happy to be a part of the lecture series and believed it was good thing for the college and the community.

“One of the hallmarks, or central attributes of an informed citizenry is a knowledge of history,” Ambrose said. “An understanding of the complex and historical origins, and character of so many things that we live with today. I think it’s a wonderful initiative on the part of the AHI to help promote historical literacy to the wider public so they might better appreciate the origins and development of so much of what we take for granted in today’s world.”

Ambrose continued to explain what the true gift of history actually is.

“The most thing history should seek to do is explain the past,” he said. “ Not to judge, not have a certain moral compass, but just sort of explain what people were doing, why they did it and how we are like and unlike them. How our ways are not their ways and how their ways are ways not our ways, and have some respect to that if we judge.”

The AHI lecture series will continue next month when Dr. Mary Grabar will take the podium to discuss her new book, “The Debunking of Howard Zinn.”


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