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Why Columbus Day is worth defending and celebrating

Christopher Columbus landing in America with the Piuzon Brothers bearing flags and crosses, 1492. Original Artwork: By D Puebla (1832 - 1904) | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Among the federal holidays, Columbus Day has become one of the least honored, partially due to controversy about misdeeds associated with colonization.  In fact, Columbus never set foot on or came close to any territory that later became part of the continental United States. 

The history of Christopher Columbus is actually less messy and more consequential than many of the other heroes of our national holidays. There is not only a great deal to celebrate in Columbus, but the man embodied a range of attributes that are necessary to solving many of our contemporary problems and even saving our country from further decline and collapse resulting from groupthink, corruption, and abuse of power.   

The American story began with Columbus’s successful 4,000 miles long sail from Europe across the Atlantic Ocean.  His quest was twofold: to find a western passage to the Spice Islands and India, and second, to carry the good news of Jesus the Savior to people in new parts of the world.   

Columbus had grown up in a working-class family and his life was one of hardship, punctuated by near-death and failures that would have been the demise of most ordinary people. If he had not been a man of character and determination with deep faith in God, self-confidence to ignore critics, and steadfastness in his vision and his calling, he never could have accomplished what he did, which was of course the discovery of the New World of the Western Hemisphere.

Columbus left voluminous writings that bear witness to what motivated him to do what he did. Born and raised in Genoa, Italy, he was the consummate self-made man who shipped out at an early age. Experiencing the militant face of Islam at the eastern end of the Mediterranean that created a blockade to Europe’s important overland trade with the Orient, he knew that finding a western sea route would have far-reaching benefits.

Columbus faced death when the Flemish-flagged ship on which he was crew was attacked and sunk off the coast of Portugal. But for a seafarer with his ambition and vision, as providence would have it, there was no better place to wash up than on the shore of Portugal, a nation that had developed the world’s most advanced tools of navigation and map-making. In Portugal, Columbus’s exposure to celestial navigation further confirmed his confidence to sail west across the Atlantic and find a trade route to India and the Spice Islands. By his late 30s he felt “called,” writing in his diary, “It was the Lord who put into my mind, [and] I could feel his hand upon me … that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies.” 

Recognizing that such an undertaking would need state sponsorship, Columbus and his brother spent the next 6 years traipsing across Europe seeking support from sovereignties of the leading maritime countries, only to find rejection and ridicule.  Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain had turned down Columbus several times. But because of his seafaring skills, conviction in his vision, and his bravery and willingness to lead an armed flotilla to rescue the Holy Sepulcher from Muslim hands in the eastern Mediterranean, they had a change of heart.

Few years in history have been punctuated by such pivotal events as what happened in 1492.  It was in that year that Christendom — still suffering from the loss of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks 40 years prior — was liberated from the Muslim conquest of Spain and Europe with Isabella and Ferdinand playing the pivotal role. They then decided to support Christian expansion and back the exploration and evangelistic expedition of Columbus.

In his first voyage, after being at sea for nearly 2 months, Columbus faced an anxious and increasingly frustrated crew.  The situation became mutinous with threats to heave Columbus overboard if he did not agree to their demands to turn back.  Recognizing that he could hardly restrain let alone punish his mutinous crew, given that there were 40 of them, Columbus turned to God. In a letter that has been preserved among his personal historical records, Columbus wrote that God inspired him to make a deal with his Spanish crew and stake his life on it.  He asked for 3 more days, and if land was not sighted, the crew could do with him as they wished.  

In the early morning hours of the third day on October 12, the lookout from the ship Pinta gave the long-awaited signal of sighting land. Assuming it was an island to the east of India or perhaps China, Columbus had no idea that he was about to discover a new part of the world — the outskirts of a massive continent — far from the Orient. 

Today’s “woke” culture, which has held Columbus accountable for the chain of disasters that followed in his wake in the Caribbean and South America is not only unfair to him, but it overlooks the essence of the man. Not of Spanish culture, Columbus was at heart a simple but ambitious individualist — a seafaring explorer and evangelist.  He had neither interest in founding colonies nor was he an effective leader and administrator of strong-headed hidalgos that undertook setting up colonial outposts at the behest of Queen Isabella.

Columbus’s perseverance and courage in his transatlantic feat of crossing a vast ocean inspired successors from northern Europe who had been transformed by the Protestant Reformation with the ideas of equality and freedom. They would set out to pursue a new life in a new world, ultimately establishing 13 different colonies in coastal North America.

Suffering injustice from Great Britain, those colonists reluctantly banded together to fight for independence. Over 6 years of war they lost more battles than they won. But like the course of Columbus, George Washington’s persistence, courage, and faith in God empowered an underequipped and underfunded colonial army to get to final victory and achieve independence.  That, in turn, enabled the founding of a new nation, unlike any other — one based on the revolutionary idea that people’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness were inviolable because those rights came from God and not man or the state.  

Seen as a bigger picture, Columbus Day is worth keeping and honoring for the simple reason that it celebrates beliefs and qualities of character that are foundational to America.  It could even be said that Columbus Day is the holiday that commemorates the human character, attitudes, and choice of action that made the other American holidays possible.

Scott S. Powell is senior fellow at Discovery Institute. He has enjoyed a career split between theory and practice with 30 years of experience as an entrepreneur and rainmaker in several industries. He joined the Discovery Institute after having been a visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution for six years and serving as a managing partner at a consulting firm, RemingtonRand.

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