Columbus Day: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two. Today is Columbus Day, a federal holiday since 1937 but commemorated as far back as 1792 when New York celebrated the 300th anniversary of his arrival in the New World.

Many people now know, thanks to the efforts of their history teachers and the History Channel, that Columbus most likely did not discover the New World. Some historians believe the first people from the Old World arrived via a land bridge across the Bering Strait. There is also evidence that the Vikings, Chinese, Welsh and even Polynesians possibly got to the New World first. So why does Columbus get a day?

It isn’t really the “discovery” that makes his arrival in the New World significant. It is what happened next. Europeans will colonize the Americas. The English will establish permanent settlements all along the coastline of North America with the first being at Jamestown in 1607.

North America became a destination for those seeking a better life. Many, like the Pilgrims in 1622 and the Puritans in 1633, came so that they could have religious freedom. They set up a “city on a hill” so that they could be free to worship God without government interference. Others came for the possibility of political and economic freedom. They wanted to own their own land and be able to reap the benefits of their own labor.

This eventually led to the creation of the United States which is probably one of the most important impacts of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. The United States was built on fundamental principles like the rights of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”. Its founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, established this nation as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

This new United States became a model for the rest of the world.

“We the people” established a government that protected freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, private property rights and other precious rights that have been the envy of others for nearly 240 years.

A public education system was set up so that citizens could be taught to read and write. Foreign visitors were amazed that so many average Americans could read about the important issues of the day and express their voice at the polling places.

Education in the Old World had mostly been reserved for those who could afford it. The elite would be trained to eventually rule.

Although it would be many years before the definition of citizen was expanded and political rights were extended to all Americans, these freedoms and liberties became the foundation for a nation that would emerge as the leader of the free world after World War II.

So Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World set in motion a series of events that would change the world. A place that most people in the 1400s did not know existed would become the strongest nation in the world, based not on tyranny but democracy and freedom. Columbus Day is a day to remember and be thankful for the privileges that others made possible.

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