Columbus and America’s voyages
The example of an explorer set the nation in motion
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.