In the 19th century, Christopher Columbus was regarded as one of the most heroic and significant figures of his or any age. The “Admiral of the Ocean Seas” was celebrated throughout the Americas as a visionary who braved the unknown on a mission of discovery that created a New World. Our national capitol district was named in his honor because he opened the door to a new era of freedom that America represents.
Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1970. By then, the reputation of the Genoese mariner was under concerted assault. Columbus was castigated as the first European colonialist. He brought not freedom but slavery and disease to the New World. He destroyed the idyllic Native American paradise populated by “noble savages” who simply wished to live in peace. In 2002, Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez changed the name of the holiday to “Day of Indigenous Resistance,” and two years later in Caracas, activists tore down a statue of “Columbus the tyrant.” From this perspective, 1492 was nothing to celebrate. It was the beginning of the end.
Previous generations had a better grasp of what this day really means. The first national observance was declared in 1892 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ historic voyage. It fittingly was called Discovery Day. The 1893 World Columbian Exposition was a frank celebration of America’s technological, cultural and economic progress. Then, the United States was an emerging power, youthful, muscular and proud, a growing country facing the world unafraid and unashamed.
Today, that robust spirit is wanting. The very idea of America is under assault. For many, our national identity is defined by guilt, oppression and a sense of unearned entitlement. A country cannot long survive when it doubts itself.
Each generation must renew the sense of discovery that is at the core of what it means to be American. We are all on a voyage to a new world, but there is no guarantee it will be a better one. Preserving the vision of America as the shining city on a hill requires the same boldness as Columbus, and the same willingness to take action. In these days when schools teach that our national heroes are villains, when a president gains international recognition for apologizing for the country, when climate change fanatics tell us we must halt our journey or fall off the edge of the Earth, we say, sail on, Columbia, sail on!