Columbus Day -- and its Enemies

Columbus Day -- and its Enemies
AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File
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You don’t have a buy a party hat or uncork the champagne. It’s a minor holiday. But Columbus Day is still worth celebrating, and those who attack it are worth rebutting.

The focus should not be the navigator himself. He was a courageous, if misguided, explorer, who set sail for China, thinking the globe was much smaller and not knowing a vast landmass would block his journey. When he died 14 years later, he still believed he had landed in Asia, still thought baseball and football teams should be named “the Indians.”

What the holiday really commemorates is a much larger event that forever changed the world: the opening of the Americas, North and South, to a permanent connection with Europe. That has continued unabated for over 500 years and led to momentous achievements, from mass democracy to mass prosperity.

The Vikings may have landed earlier in Newfoundland, but they did not begin a continuous stream of trade and migration. The Chinese may have made it as far as the West Coast, as some speculate, but then they stopped all seafaring. Whatever the archeologists may discover, the voyages produced nothing enduring.

Columbus’ landing did. His discovery, coming soon after the printing press was invented, was quickly publicized and soon followed by explorers from all Europe’s maritime powers. Their quests for gold, silver, and souls began an unbroken stream of contact and cultural exchange, which made our hemisphere and, later, our country a creative offshoot of European civilization. As citizens, we may trace our family’s ancestry to India, Iran, or China, but our civilization is, at bottom, rooted in Europe’s history, religions, peoples, and culture.

It is a living heritage. American courts still rely on common law doctrines forged in medieval England. Our religious heritage came from Jerusalem, by way of Rome, Wittenberg, and Geneva. We read Bibles translated for the court of King James. Lincoln’s speeches grew out of its daily readings. We read Plato in Athens, Georgia. We study the fall of the Roman Empire with a shudder of foreboding about our own future.

It was these cultural connections that America celebrated at its greatest World Fair, in Chicago in 1893. The “Columbian Exposition” celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage (and Chicago’s own recovery from its devastating fire two decades earlier).

If the 400th anniversary was big, you might expect the 500th anniversary to be even bigger. It wasn’t. There were no big celebrations and, of the plethora of books marking the occasion, many were sharply critical.

America was—and still is—embarrassed by Columbus’ “discovery” of America. That’s why radicals have attacked Columbus statues across the country. Antifa has called for more attacks this year. It’s their way of celebrating the holiday. Still, those noxious attacks are less important than the quiet confusion and awkwardness many Americans feel about celebrating Columbus’ voyage of discovery.

They are right to feel some ambivalence. The rose-tinted histories of an earlier generation glossed over two overwhelming tragedies. The first is that European viruses arrived with the people and their animals. Local populations had no immunities and as many as 90 percent died. It was the horrific, unintended effect of two isolated biosystems meeting.

The second tragedy was deliberate: the enslavement of millions of Africans, transported to dig mines, harvest sugar cane, and farm cotton and tobacco across the Americas. The middle passage from Africa was a deadly one, the work crushing, and the treatment as chattel slaves inhuman.

We can—and should—recognize these terrible dimensions of our past without consigning the whole of that history to the ash heap or romanticizing the pre-Columbian Americas as a bucolic paradise. They weren’t.

To take just one example: The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice on a gargantuan scale. Hundreds of thousands of human skulls, many of infants, were the detritus of their religious festivals. In some, the victims’ hearts were eaten as prizes. The Aztecs treated conquered tribes with such lethal contempt that, when the Spanish arrived, they found eager allies en route to Tenochtitlan.

Sentimentalizing this harsh world has been a standard feature of Western thought since Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s rhapsody for the “noble savage.” In reality, nearly everyone lived short, brutal lives of crushing poverty, hovering at subsistence level.

A clear-eyed view of Columbus Day should cast aside this mirage of a pre-Columbian Eden. And it should face the bitter facts of disease and slavery.

Still, we can face those truths and celebrate the achievements begun by Columbus. The European voyages of discovery forged a trans-Atlantic world. It is a world in which America and its European partners have created unprecedented levels of human freedom, material comfort, and longevity. That’s a legacy worth remembering—and reclaiming.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at and can be reached at

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