Colum­bus and Amer­ica’s voy­ages

The ex­am­ple of an ex­plorer set the na­tion in mo­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - Thomas V. DiBacco is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Amer­i­can Univer­sity in the District of Columbia, which is named af­ter Christo­pher Colum­bus. By Thomas V. DiBacco

Mon­day is the 79th an­niver­sary of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s mak­ing Colum­bus Day a hol­i­day. To be sure, Amer­i­cans cel­e­brated Oct. 12 long be­fore 1937. But the hol­i­day has fallen on hard times in re­cent years. With con­gres­sional leg­is­la­tion in 1968, it’s part of the Mon­day hol­i­day scheme, mean­ing that it could fall, as it does this year, on a date re­moved from ac­tual his­tory. Then some states, cities and pri­vate en­ti­ties don’t cel­e­brate the day, not­ing that Christo­pher Colum­bus was as­so­ci­ated with ex­ploit­ing In­di­ans, in­tro­duc­ing dis­eases to the New World, en­slav­ing peo­ples and even bring­ing ad­dic­tive tobacco back to the Old World.

But Colum­bus’ faults aren’t a new story. In­deed, Amer­i­cans for years knew of the dark side of Colum­bus, just as they were aware of the short­com­ings of such no­ta­bles as Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, who re­ceived mixed re­views about his treat­ment of his slaves when he died in the midst of par­ti­san strife in 1799, and scarcely re­ceived a proper be­reave­ment. Still, Amer­i­cans named nu­mer­ous towns, coun­ties and dis­tricts af­ter Colum­bus and Wash­ing­ton be­cause they con­trib­uted unique qual­i­ties to the na­tion.

In the case of Colum­bus, no his­to­rian in re­cent decades did a more per­sua­sive job in el­e­vat­ing Colum­bus than Sa­muel Eliot Mori­son in his biography that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1943. Af­ter re­count­ing Colum­bus’ flaws, Mori­son noted that “there was no flaw, no dark side to the most out­stand­ing ... of all his qual­i­ties — his seamanship. As a mas­ter mariner and nav­i­ga­tor, Colum­bus was supreme in his gen­er­a­tion.”

And early Amer­i­cans rec­og­nized that dar­ing, steer­ing trait of Colum­bus through the phe­nom­e­non of spa­tial mo­bil­ity on their dry land. Like Colum­bus, who made four voy­ages to the New World, Amer­i­cans have been peo­ple on the move. Early Colo­nial set­tle­ments re­flected as­pects of Great Bri­tain writ small, but, like Colum­bus, set­tlers wanted to know what was to the west, south and north. So ac­qui­si­tion of ter­ri­tory and op­por­tu­nity to move made for a unique na­tional devel­op­ment, and states com­peted for peo­ple. Ohio, which came into the union in 1803, had a more demo­cratic con­sti­tu­tion than Pennsylvania, Indiana more so than Ohio, Illi­nois bested the Hoosier state, only to be up­staged by Iowa.

At var­i­ous junc­tures of set­tle­ment, as a sign of progress, a town was named af­ter Colum­bus: i n Ge­or­gia, Mississippi and Texas to the south; in Ohio and Wis­con­sin, in the north; in Indiana, Missouri and Nebraska in the Mid­west; and in Montana in the far west, to name but a few.

Like the open wa­ters of the At­lantic on which Colum­bus trav­eled, Amer­ica has been an easy land to move within. States re­quire no pass­ports; the Uni­form Com­mer­cial Code has pro­vided for an ease of busi­ness trans­ac­tions; and the ra­pid­ity of cit­i­zen move­ment has less­ened the prob­lem of di­alects. This root­less­ness has given rise to in­sti­tu­tional same­ness to en­sure that cul­tural shock doesn’t ac­com­pany a re­lo­ca­tion from Peo­ria to Mi­ami. Ho­tels and fast-food restau­rants look alike, as do churches, depart­ment stores, banks and schools — all safe har­bors, un­like Colum­bus’ At­lantic, to a peo­ple on the move.

Sleight of feet is ac­com­pa­nied by sleight of mind, ac­cord­ing to French vis­i­tor Alexis de Toc­queville. “Amer­ica is a land of won­der,” he wrote in 1840, “in which ev­ery­thing is in con­stant mo­tion and ev­ery change seems an im­prove­ment ... . No nat­u­ral bound­ary seems to be set to the ef­forts of man; and in his eyes what is not yet done is only what he has not at­tempted to do.”

Lit­tle won­der that his­to­ri­ans make ref­er­ence to the stream, cur­rents or tides of Amer­i­can life — rush­ing, wind­ing, ebbing and flood­ing — and like Colum­bus’ big ocean still deep with un­tapped en­ergy and re­sources.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.