“He [Columbus] is entitled to rank forever as the greatest of all explorers. But the glory of his exploit, great as it was, becomes almost unimportant when compared with its results. It marked the inception of the modern era. The minds of men were opened to new thoughts. The gold and silver of America gave a new trend to the life of Europe. The arts began to flourish. The people began to assert their rights. More colonies brought more trade. A new age appeared, great in captains, admirals, statesmen, poets and philosophers, and finally new nations dedicated to human freedom arose on this side of the Atlantic. These are partly the reasons why Christopher Columbus is entitled to be honored” (Calvin Coolidge, from his daily column, October 11, 1930)
There would be no celebrating the BBQ, relaxing in the hammock, or venturing out in the canoe – all words and concepts originating with the people Columbus first encountered – had there been no Columbus to give it enduring importance, meaning, and place to be enjoyed in a little haven of liberty we now call the United States of America. Before we rush to whiteout another chapter of history our own immaturity deems incomprehensible, we would do well to understand the daring Italian as he truly was.
He was one who risked everything to not only open the eyes of Europe to places and people he knew to be where no one else believed them to exist but also to bring Christ to those souls before even meeting and coming to admire them. He believed good deeds should be rewarded and evil deeds punished and so distinguished between the natives who maimed and ate their enemies from those simply trying to defend themselves and live full lives. He saw potential in those who denied it both in themselves and in others, be they native or Spanish. He disdained the sickness of greed that infected those sent with him to exploit the people they encountered and take credit for what others had done. He believed in the better nature of humanity to prevail and that cost him everything in the end. He saw native and colonist working together to build something new from the best of both worlds not another recycled hierarchy of class and caste. He would see his vision of a noble and godly community perverted before his eyes by the same encomienda regime driven at the grasp of hidalgos holding whips over their lessers, compelled by the same arrogance and avarice, covetousness and callousness that had spoiled Spain. His sense of justice was repulsed at the very thought. Above it all he stepped into the dark with a host of villains and skeptics, bearing the false accusations and misdeeds of others, but appealing to the Righteous and Eternal Judge for the rectitude of his deeds and the sincerity of his intentions.
He found light through the door he opened, a light his eyes could not possibly comprehend but would give life and opportunity on a measure unsurpassed in all of human history. Others saw a plump land of mere things to exploit. He is the first to see it with the eye of an American, a shimmering harbor of ideals, a way of thinking and living that does not simply accept the way things are but strives for the way things ought to be and can be if we dare.
We can appreciate what the indigenous give us today because they found meaning and value in the estimation of the man who ventured half-way across the world to confirm they were there and to share the good things he had to give them. Any lack of immunity was no more a weapon known or intentionally used by Columbus than it was in the hands of Powhatan against the colonists of Jamestown one hundred and twenty years later, or the troops who brought influenza home after the Great War. It was Columbus who believed they, the people he would meet, were worth the journey, worth the cost, and worth the knowing. It remains a Happy Columbus Day, America!
As Coolidge would say, “[I]t is a very hasty and ill-considered judgment to conclude that there is more bad than good in any one. We are all a combination of both elements. While we ought not to approve of the evil in ourselves or in others…The only perfect man ate and drank with publicans and sinners. It did not scandalize Him, it was some of those who were not perfect who were scandalized…There is enough good in all of us to support the law of human fellowship. We shall be much more effective for good if we treat men not as they are but as they ought to be. If we judge ourselves only by our aspirations and every one else only by their conduct we shall reach a very false conclusion. When we have exhausted the possibilities of criticism on ourselves it will be time enough to apply it to others. The world needs high social standards and we should do our best to maintain them, but they should rest on the broad base of Christian charity.”