There are many differences between Casimir Pulaski and Christopher Columbus, but here’s a significant one:
Pulaski, a Polish-born general, actually set foot in what is now the United States of America. Columbus got as close at modern Cuba in his four voyages to the Western Hemisphere.
Actually, Pulaski and Columbus share another common thread. Legal holidays in their honor are constantly under fire. In Illinois, efforts to repeal Pulaski Day began shortly after that state made it a legal holiday. (Wisconsin also celebrates Pulaski Day). Nothing against Pulaski, who was a contemporary of George Washington and a Revolutionary War hero in his own right. There’s just too many holidays, according to critics.
Columbus Day, which came and went this past Monday, was a magnet of controversy long before President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed it a federal holiday in 1937, under intense lobbying from the Knights of Columbus. Originally, opposition to Columbus Day was derived from anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bias, as the day was associated with a celebration of Italian-American contributions to this country.
In recent years, the legacy of Columbus has received a reappraisal centered on the explorer’s own treatment of Native Americans — his first report to the Spanish king referred to them as “timid and full of terror” — and the broader lust for gold and conquest that followed his expeditions. To say that Native Americans paid a heavy price would be the understatement of the last 500 years.
For this reason, some would wish to eliminate the holiday, others want to call it Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Maybe they’ve got it half right. It’s time to re-evaluate the legacy of Columbus and what he unleashed. A pivot toward a day recognizing indigenous people seems appropriate for the second Monday of October, but only if we recall that the origin of Columbus Day wasn’t a celebration of conquest.
It’s also important to celebrate immigrants who enriched the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe. To this end, Pulaski Day would be a perfect replacement for Columbus Day.
Casimir Pulaski offered his military services to the American Revolution when he met Benjamin Franklin in Paris. After the battle of Brandywine, Washington made him a general and appointed him the first leader of the U.S. cavalry. He led the Pulaski Legion, a brigade that prevented the fall of Charleston, South Carolina.
Prior to his death, he wrote to Washington that, “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die from it.”
Too many holidays, you say? Members of Congress should consider packing the federal holiday schedule instead of the Supreme Court. They cause less damage that way.