In american history, there are plenty of heroes that don’t get villainized enough like FDR and Lincoln, and there are plenty of villains that don’t get glorfied enough, like Rockefeller and the robber barons. Sometimes people buck the trend and present some alternative perspective that makes you totally change the way you think about these historical figures. Being an Italian, I hesitate to put Columbus in the first group, especially since it seems that smashing him could be just the politically correct thing to do. But as I think Bryan Caplan points out there’s little room to saving Columbus from such criticisms.
On the other hand, I’d like to stand up for a group of individuals who identify themselves with Columbus. In recently reading “Rising Tide,” I took note of the following point of history (I have since lent the book to a freind and don’t have it on hand to quote otherwise I would, the following is a summary of a breif section to the best of my recollection.
In the cotton growing South, near the end of slavery, plantation owners were having a difficult time maintaining production rates. Despite what modern economic theory implies that paid wages provides incentive to increase one’s marginal productive output. It appeared that blacks post slavery were being less productive. I think the economic theory of efficiency wages, and labor being paid its marginal product still holds, but is deceptive in this historical context. My guess would be that while under slavery blacks received larger pay in terms of living conditions, food, and housing than the plantation owners could afford to pay them in pure financial wages after slavery. Blacks probably had a difficult time obtaining housing, clothing, and food in the racially hostile south and more of their efforts had to be devoted to self sufficiency on these margins rather than working the cotton fields. One might go so far as to say that living conditions immediately after slavery was repealed was marginally lower for blacks in terms of real goods and services consumed.
What this translated into was a high demand for immigrant labor, especially Italians who seemed to have a different cultural motivation for being productive and energetic to work. A side effect of this competetive labor market was the geographic displacement of blacks looking for more work. In response, organizations like the KKK grew hostile to this expanding black population. Recognizing how immigrant labor had disrupted the power relationship amongst blacks and whites in the south, the KKK listed Catholics amongst their enemies. In response to the KKK the Knights of Columbus were formed. And eventually stood as one of the major influences in fending off the KKK in southern politics and civic society.
If Italians can’t be proud of Columbus at least we can be proud of those he inspired.