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How Christopher Columbus helped bring the School of Salamanca to the Americas

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Every Columbus Day gives rise to endless debates and recriminations over the impact of Christopher Columbus’ expedition upon the indigenous peoples of the Americas. No honest observer can dismiss the injustices perpetrated after Columbus’ landing (nor before it), but one benefit of his voyage has been forgotten: It inadvertently exposed the Americas to the School of Salamanca.

This late scholastic school of Roman Catholic thought emphasized individual rights, human dignity, and economic liberty (particularly against government-sponsored inflation; for more, see Faith and Liberty: The Economic Thought of the Late Scholastics by Alejandro A. Chaufen). The views of this school is the subject of a new essay by Spanish author Ángel Manuel García Carmona at Religion & Liberty Transatlantic.

“Christianity is responsible, not for the enslavement, but for the desire to treat natives with the respect and inherent dignity all human beings deserve,” he writes. “One of the most unappreciated blessings of Columbus’ journey was exposing the Americas to the School of Salamanca.”

Spain was the first European nation where a debate took place among intellectuals on the legitimacy of its national conquest, based on the notion of “just titles” (justos títulos). A key event was the famous Valladolid debate (1550-1551) between Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. Bartolomé de las Casas argued that natives retained their dignity and rights, despite their often gruesome practices, such as human sacrifice. (Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda argued that the natives deserved far harsher treatment from the civilized Spaniards.) Aside from his arguments on behalf of natives’ rights and dignity, it is very important to highlight the role of other participants, such as Domingo de Soto opposed the Spanish domination of American natives, and Melchor Cano. Both were disciples of Francisco de Vitoria.

Vitoria was the founder of the School of Salamanca, which contributed to the development of classical liberal (or “libertarian”) theories promoting the “commercial spirit.”

After exploring the teachings of this school in general, and Vitoria in particular, he concludes:

The ideas of Francisco de Vitoria and the School of Salamanca would have given the indigenous peoples of the “New World” a greater measure of freedom than they enjoyed under Spain – and gave them greater liberty than they enjoyed under pre-Christian tribal leadership.

Whatever Columbus’ intentions, his expedition on behalf of Spain carried with it the possibility that these principles of individual rights, free markets, and self-determination might one day allow former slaves to liberate themselves and pursue the maximum of human flourishing. Had the School of Salamanca’s exponents exerted greater influence over policy in the Americas, the celebration of Columbus Day would take place with far fewer reservations in the West.

You can read his full essay here.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

 

Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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