The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Getting rid of Columbus Day entirely is a sad development

The Christopher Columbus statue at Manhattan's Columbus Circle in New York. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

This column has been updated.

Today is Columbus Day — except in a growing number of cities and states that instead recognize Indigenous People’s Day. This trend is a sad development.

There is no particular reason the United States needs to celebrate Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. In any of his voyages, he never touched upon land that became part of the 50 states. As a representative of the Spanish crown, his discoveries did not directly lead to the English settlement that gave rise to our country. Columbus Day originated in the United States primarily as a way for Italian American immigrants (Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy) to celebrate their status in their new land. As Italian Americans are no longer subjected to the significant prejudice that marked their arrival here last century, we could abolish Columbus Day celebrations entirely and most people would not terribly miss them.

That is not the course that many, mostly liberal, cities and states have taken. By renaming the holiday Indigenous People’s Day, they have decided to emphasize the sorrier aspects of Western colonization and conquest of the Americas rather than its virtues. That is problematic for a host of reasons.

Follow Henry Olsen's opinionsFollow

Western civilization remains, for all its historical faults, the noblest civilization mankind has yet devised. It, more than any other major civilization today, has emphasized the dignity and unique worth of each and every person. That central principle has allowed it to change from within, to recognize its past failures and to liberate those whom it used to repress. It is the fuller recognition of its own principles that has allowed Western nations to enfranchise women, racial and ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, and Native Americans themselves. Celebrations that fail to recognize that and focus only on the West’s imperfect past implicitly reject the ideas that make our society worth living in today.

It is surely no coincidence that Latin American nations governed by socialist regimes have also chosen to rename their Columbus Day celebrations. Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, for example, has renamed it “Day of the Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance,” while the late socialist dictator Hugo Chávez had Venezuela change it to “Day of the Indigenous Resistance.” Their aims were clear: Label Western civilization as inherently oppressive and rapacious and set their socialist governments as an alternative.

It’s possible to celebrate Columbus Day in the manner of a proud and decent society — one that can recognize its faults while proudly asserting its virtues. That’s what tour guides at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello increasingly do. Jefferson’s slave-owning and treatment of his mistress, Sally Hemings, are no longer ignored as they are part of his heritage, too. But his shining virtues — his love of freedom, his quest for knowledge, his affirmation of human rights — are also part of the story and, indeed, the reason visitors flock to his home. His ideas made him more than just another plantation owner, and a fair assessment of his life must conclude that ultimately his virtues outweighed his faults.

The West that Columbus brought to America was not the liberal, tolerant West we know today. The birth of the Enlightenment was nearly two centuries in the future, and liberal democratic ideals remained incompletely accepted in some areas of Western Europe until after World War II or later. It’s understandable, then, that many native people find the celebration of his arrival offensive. For their ancestors, the result of his coming was terrible: disease, slaughter and enslavement.

As Western Europe developed into the font of liberalism, however, the conquest opened these countries to this development as well. The English form of Western civilization that we inherited was especially open to ideals of freedom and toleration. The United States is a good place in which to live as a result, and there was a reason the liberators of Spanish America in the early 19th century modeled their constitutions after ours. As with Jefferson, we should be proud to say that the good in our ideals outweigh the problems our imperfect realization of them has caused.

America has changed immensely over its lifetime. We have used the liberal ideals of that small, British republic hugging the Atlantic Coast to make full citizens of immigrants from Asia, Europe, Africa and beyond. We have used those ideals to free slaves and continue the hard work of undoing the effects centuries of slavery and segregation wrought on our African American brothers and sisters. We are not perfect, but no human society ever is. We are simply what we have always been: a good society trying to get better. Columbus Day should be a celebration of that.

Christopher Columbus wasn't Italian? Kris Lane, professor of colonial Latin American history at Tulane University, busts five myths about the explorer. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

Kris Lane: Five myths about Christopher Columbus

Letter: Christopher Columbus was not a Pilgrim

Busting a myth about Columbus and a flat Earth

Joshua Adams: Politicians keep ignoring Native American voters. It’s a huge mistake.

New tour app seeks to correct the Native American narrative in the nation’s capital