As the phenomenon of eliminating Columbus Day from the calendar continues to spread around America’s universities, it is perhaps most noteworthy to consider Columbia University.
According to the Columbia Daily Spectator, Columbia long-ago preceded Brown and Berkeley in de-facto eliminating Columbus Day, and its campus is today swarming with protesters.
Of course, one might ask, is it not then natural that students should boycott the school itself? After all, its name, too, celebrates the legacy of the Italian “murderer” – and in fact does so 365 days of the year, rather than only one.
Or what about the country of Colombia? Perhaps we should boycott its goods until it renames itself. And then we might cordon off the District of Columbia. (Wouldn’t that be something!)
Virtually no-one would rationally argue that the individuals who bequeathed Columbus’ namesake upon their respective institution, country, capital city, etc. did so because of racist motivation. Rather, they were celebrating the legacy of the man whose discovery made America possible.
Certainly, the legacy of Columbus’ discovery contains elements of glory, as well as shame. This country’s history contains bad, as well as good.
As a holiday, Columbus Day allows us to reflect upon these historical facts, and to realize that the good far outweighs the bad. Virtually every major civilization in history, prior to ours, practiced some form of slavery or coerced oppression. Indeed, the majority of African slaves were enslaved (and sold) by other black Africans. The destruction of America’s native population is a horrible tragedy, on par with the institution of slavery. But in history, this sort of tragedy is, sadly, far from unique.
What is unique was the dramatic movement away from this sort destructive conquest – resulting from the free and self-correcting institutions upon which the United States had been founded, as well as a hard-fought civil war. These foundations allowed for the outpouring of goodwill and effort from countless civil-rights activists. And we see the culmination of Columbus’ legacy today: it is now possible for a man of mixed-race to become president. Where in Europe has there been a leader of similar heritage? It was not so long ago, lest we forget, that the United States was the only major democracy in the world. Would anyone now doubt that a Native American could follow in our current president’s footsteps in the foreseeable future?
Thus, we celebrate Columbus Day: not for the tragedies that befell those subject to colonial Europeans or early Americans; but for the triumph, the birth of our nation and the evolution and maturation of Western culture that took place. All of this was as a result of Columbus’ daring and intrepid voyage across the Atlantic.
We can damn ourselves, and focus on the tragedies of the past to the exclusion of all else. We can naively judge a 15th century man by 21st century standards. Or we can carry the legacy of history forward and with optimism: declaring our intention to strengthen democracy and opportunity, and proud in the knowledge that we are, truly, better for our struggles. The students of Columbia University should be celebrating with us.
Author’s Note: this article reflects my view, and not necessarily that of the Foundation.