Acton Institute Powerblog

Columbus Day: Why Does It Matter?

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The second Monday of October is designated as “Columbus Day” in the United States, ostensibly to give honor and tribute to the man, Christopher Columbus, who “discovered” America. Every American school kid learns to sing-song, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Today, the reason most people in the U.S. notice Columbus Day is because they don’t get any mail, and federal workers get the day off. (Of course, with the federal mail system dying a slow death and the government shutdown, there may not be too many people who notice Columbus Day at all…)

Does Columbus Day matter?

Many indigenous groups in North America don’t think so. While Italian-Americans boast of their countryman’s accomplishments, native groups see the celebration of Columbus’ travels as a day of mourning the death of many of their ancestors. And of course, Columbus wasn’t trying to discover a “new land” but rather a better route to Asian trading partners for Europe. Even Columbus wanted to be remembered for finding Asia, not this new land.

At best, we can call Christopher Columbus a “flawed hero,” according to Warren H. Carroll. The man was daring and brave, undertaking a voyage with the best information of his time, which wasn’t that great. And since he thought he was sailing to Asia, had he not run into North America, he and his crew would have died, as they were unprepared for a voyage of that length. Carroll says we should still honor him:

It is for the boldness of his conception and his magnificent courage in laying his life on the line to carry it out that Christopher Columbus is most rightly honored. It was these qualities that Queen Isabel of Spain recognized in him, that caused her to override the cautious advice of counsellors doubtful that such an unprecedented enterprise could succeed. Isabel knew nothing of navigation and little of world geography, but she was a superb judge of men and women.

Carroll also tells the story of Columbus’ return journey, with only two ships (the Santa Maria had run aground and left for timber for a fort), and those two ships became separated. The Nina ran into a hurricane, and lost all but one sail.

The slightest error in turning into the monster waves rolling up from behind would swamp the ship and sink it like a stone. They could not do it in trough or on crest, but only on the upward roll, when there was moonlight or lightning to show them their opportunity.

The sail was drawing hard, adding its pressure to the pull on the helm. The tall Admiral, his once red hair bleached white by sun and strain, stood with feet braced, waiting for his moment. So far as he knew, his ship and men and they alone bore the secret of the greatest geographical discovery of all time. Their lives and its fate depended on what would happen in the next few minutes.

Nina made the turn flawlessly, and squared away on her new course. “God protected us until daylight,” Columbus says, “but it was with infinite labor and fright.”

It is in this scene, above all, that we see the hero Columbus best, and understand why for five hundred years men of all races knowing of him honored him…

We honor Columbus today, not because he found America, or even because he was a good ship’s captain. We honor him for the same reason we honor men and women like Amelia Earhart, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and Marie Curie: because they are visionaries.

Columbus was a flawed hero — as all men are flawed, including heroes — and his flaws are of a kind particularly offensive to today’s culture. But he was nevertheless a hero, achieving in a manner unequalled in the history of exploration and the sea, changing history forever. For some strange reason heroism is almost anathema to our age, at least to many of its most vocal spokesmen. But heroes and the inspiration they give are essential to uplift men and women; without them, faceless mediocrity will soon descend into apathy and degradation. Heroes need not be perfect; indeed, given the fallen nature of man, none can be perfect. It is right to criticize their failings, but wrong to deny their greatness and the inspiration they can give.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • williamdiamon

    Let’s not forget Christopher Columbus’s biggest contribution to us. Most folks who invent or discover anything name it after someone’s last name. Had Chris done this we would be known as “Vespuccians”. Chris had the foresight and taste to name the land after his hero’s first name !
    Consider “God bless Vespucci land”, see what I mean? Doesn’t have the same ring.

  • I found the combination of calling Columbus a “flawed hero” and the line below interesting.

    We honor him for the same reason we honor men and women like Amelia Earhart, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and Marie Curie: because they are visionaries.

    Realize that if these people practiced what Columbus did, they would reviled. Columbus enslaved part of the population and used violence to subjugate the rest. He wanted to force the natives to convert to Christianity but his biggest objective was to get rich. He negotiated an agreement where he would get 10% of the profits while what was most important to him was the acquisition of gold. Those who followed him brutally treated the natives in their quest for riches.

    But we still call him a hero in the likeness of Earhart, Edison, Jobs, and Curie because of his vision? Do we realize that only one of those listed heros gained from the exploited labor of others from a different race?

    Let me offer an alternative hypothesis for why we must call Columbus a hero while relegating what he did to the natives as being irrelevant. We must call Columbus a hero because he is more like us than his victims were. And that theme continued as the our nation acted out on its belief in Manifest Destiny. And what is ironic here is that on this Acton website, you have Anthony Bradley calling many non conservatives including missionals, millenials, and progressives, narcissists. At the same time, despite the atrocities practiced by Columbus and those who preceded us against the natives of the land, we must call them heros. And this is ironic because the insistence of being praised, which is what we do by extension when we exalt those who preceded us, is one of the hallmark signs of narcissism. In fact, many a conservative objection to liberal, progressive, and leftist criticism of our history is to the lack of praise for our ancestors who conquered what would become the United States.

    • John

      Narcissism? Bunk.

      As an educated Americans with a computer, you and I are amongst the most blessed, privileged, and fortunate human beings that have ever
      lived (whether you appreciate this or not.) Only tiny fractions of a percent of people have had the health, safety, material goods, freedom, and security that we enjoy.

      I am very grateful for this, and wish to honor and emulate those who made this possible. Columbus is one of those; and this is why I honor him.
      You do not recognize the gifts that you have been given and you denigrate
      what you can. I hope that the contrasts between you and I (and other conservatives who share my beliefs) remain stark and unambiguous.

      And as for his atrocities, can you give an example in human history where two civilizations met who had wide differences in advancement, and where it did not end in tragedy for the less advanced people? Serious question. Where in human history has an advanced explorer satisfied your desire for a more enlightened interaction with a primitive people?

      (And this conservative objects to how the liberals would rather work so hard to change that which discomforts them instead of working easily to preserve that which has provided them so many benefits.)