The importance of history

Last Monday, various activists at the College observed the Columbus Day holiday by adorning Baxter Hall with colorful decorations. A large banner ironically bore the message “Happy Columbus Day” in ghoulish letters. Pamphlets scattered throughout Paresky explained the evil origins of the national holiday and exhorted the reader to “Decolonize a New World.” Calling attention to the suffering Columbus and his men caused on arriving in the New World is a worthy task. Given the fondness for assaulting Columbus Day currently prevalent in the academy, this demonstration came as no surprise. Nevertheless, these activists offer a highly misleading account of events that requires careful refutation lest the members of our community stumble into a false understanding of American history and government.

The brightly colored pamphlets scattered throughout Paresky misleadingly claim that in 1823 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of Christians to claim land from non-Christians. The case in question, Johnson v. M’Intosh, actually addressed a property dispute between two white settlers. Thomas Johnson had purchased land in the Northwest Territory from the native Piankeshaw Tribe before the American Revolution. Two generations later, William M’Intosh purchased the same land directly from the new American Congress in 1818. Johnson’s heirs sued, but Chief Justice John Marshall upheld the primacy of M’Intosh’s claim, arguing that only sales of land by Indians directly to the government established legitimate property ownership.

In the court opinion, Marshall explains how convention evolved to establish property rights in the New World. Marshall explicitly refuses to evaluate the morality of the claims, insisting, “However extravagant the pretension of converting the discovery of an inhabited country into conquest may appear; if the principle has been asserted in the first instance, and afterwards sustained; if a country has been acquired and held under it; if the property of the great mass of the community originates in it, it becomes the law of the land and cannot be questioned.” In other words, Marshall does not seek to evaluate the morality of the status quo; rather, he aims to explain the origin and nature of property rights as they had evolved in the U.S. to make a practical determination on a dispute several centuries later.

In his description of the development of property rights in the New World, Marshall describes the early history of Spanish conquest. He writes, “The potentates of the old world found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity in exchange for unlimited independence.” Even a cursory reading of this passage will show that Marshall uses the language of explanation, not justification. To argue otherwise would suggest that American jurisprudence recognizes Christian religion and Christian identity as the moral basis for our legal rights. In recent years, various evangelical Christian groups have vigorously promoted this view in an effort to justify the use of government power to deny rights to lesbians and gays and non-Christians. The historical record clearly demonstrates that the Founding Fathers had secular convictions and that they established American law to defend rights that were not associated with a particular religion. By carelessly disregarding and perverting facts, the activists at Williams have unwittingly affirmed the legitimacy of arguments that are abhorrent to their own values.

The demonstration in Paresky also suggested a general want of knowledge about the origins of the Columbus Day holiday. While I was surprised to read the insinuation that Franklin Roosevelt may have made a mistake during his tenure as president, I was particularly struck by the apparent lack of awareness that Roosevelt had introduced the holiday to celebrate American diversity. Irish- and Italian-Americans, who had come to represent a considerable portion of the American population by 1937, lamented the overwhelming preponderance of northern European Protestants in the narrative of American history prevalent at the time. By dedicating a day to celebrate Columbus, an Italian, President Roosevelt prominently acknowledged the important role played by Catholics in American history, thereby conferring on Catholic identity a sense of importance and legitimacy in American life. We might better understand Columbus Day as part of the same tradition that gave us Black History Month and other official celebrations of diversity in the U.S.

Another poster outside Paresky urged viewers to “Rethink ‘History.’” Lest we find ourselves tempted to embrace the erroneous belief that the noun “history” betrays a gendered bias in our use of language, as educated men and women we must remain aware that history does not mean  “his story,” instead, it originates from the ancient Greek word “historia,” meaning “inquiry.”

The activist demonstration in Paresky dramatizes the danger inherent in employing passionate rhetoric to advance an ideological agenda without careful consideration of facts. After reading these pamphlets, an uninformed student may well have come to the conclusion that American law is founded on the moral claims of inquisition-era Catholicism and that the interpretation of American government offered by anti-gay activists is legitimate. No one would deny that Christopher Columbus did a great deal of wrong, but to ignore the important role Columbus Day played in expanding American identity to encompass non-Protestants would belittle the efforts of Irish- and Italian-Americans to create a space in American history that they could call their own. This episode underscores that in the creation of a better world, the ends do not always justify the means.

Kevin O’Connell ’13 is a history major from Larchmont, N.Y. He lives in Poker.