A strong case is made against the ban on gun possession by persons subject to a DVRO.

Columbus | NA

Christopher Columbus. (NA)


Christopher Columbus is one of a number of historical icons who has come under left-wing attack in recent decades, with the result that many jurisdictions have abandoned Columbus Day and replaced it with Indigenous People’s Day. Some of this left-wing historical revisionism is unjustified and unfair. For example, I think they are mostly wrong in their denigration of the American Revolution.  But, on some issues, they have a point,  as in the case of taking down Confederate monuments. We should not honor people whose main claim to fame is fighting a bloody war in defense of the evil institution of slavery.

The left is also right about Christopher Columbus. In a column posted yesterday, conservative Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby eloquently explains why he reconsidered his previous position on this matter:

In 1997 I wrote a column for Columbus Day weekend that opened on a smart-alecky note: “Say,” I asked, “is it OK to admire Christopher Columbus again?”…

“For all his flaws,” I concluded, “he was magnificent.”

I wouldn’t write that today. My view has changed….

In general, I consider it dishonest and arrogant to measure individuals who lived centuries ago by standards that didn’t exist in their day or to judge them pitilessly for behavior that we find detestable but that they and their world would have regarded as normal.

But what changed my mind about Columbus wasn’t anything written or said by his modern detractors. It was the testimony of his contemporaries….

Columbus returned from his first voyage to what he mistakenly called the Indies with a dozen abducted natives, as well as plans to capture and exploit many more. His first trip had been rushed, he told the monarchs, but on his next he was sure he could amass “slaves in any number they may order.”

The king and queen ordered him to do no such thing. In written instructions dated May 12, 1493, they directed Columbus to “endeavor to win over the inhabitants” to Christianity and not harm or coerce them….

During his second journey to the Caribbean, historian Edward T. Stone wrote in a 1975 essay for American Heritage, Columbus captured a large number of indigenous men, women, and children, sending them back as cargo in 12 ships to be sold in the slave market at Seville…..

[R]eports of the savagery, slaughter, and enslavement committed by Columbus could not be ignored indefinitely. In 1500, the Spanish sovereigns finally lowered the boom. They commissioned Francisco de Bobadilla to investigate and report on the admiral’s conduct. After gathering information from Columbus’s supporters and detractors, Bobadilla filed a no-holds-barred indictment detailing the cruelties committed by Columbus and his lieutenants.

“Punishments included cutting off people’s ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets, and selling them into slavery,” reported The Guardian when a copy of Bobadilla’s statement was discovered in 2006….

The charges were taken seriously. Very seriously: Bobadilla had Columbus arrested and shipped back to Spain — in chains — to stand trial. It was, in Stone’s words, a “harsh and humiliating” downfall. Columbus eventually received a royal pardon, but Ferdinand and Isabella refused to restore his position as governor of the Indies….

Another of Columbus’s contemporaries to excoriate his deeds was Bartolomé de las Casas….

Five years ago I read Las Casas’s most famous work, “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,” which he published in 1542. It is ferocious in its wrath and graphic in its descriptions of the horrors inflicted on the native people. He raged against the sadism, greed, and treachery of the Spaniards. No one who reads his book can cling to the belief that condemnations of Columbus are nothing but 20/20 hindsight, or that they are based on moral standards by which no one in the 1500s would have judged him.

Las Casas and other 16th century natural law theorists, such as Francisco Vitoria, knew that it was wrong to conquer and enslave Native Americans. As Jacoby notes, even the King and Queen of Spain realized that, though they were happy to support it when it served their interests to do so.

The evil of enslavement was something people were entirely capable of understanding in Columbus’s time. Thus, there was no excuse for his horrific actions. And none of his achievements as a mariner and explorer even begin to outweigh that evil. For that reason, Columbus deserves to be condemned, not celebrated. You don’t have to be a “woke” leftist to understand that. Jacoby should be commended for recognizing a situation where ideological opponents turn out to be right about something. In this age of poisonous polarization, the rest of us can learn from his example.

If we conclude that Columbus is unworthy of honor and celebration, it is fair to ask whether the same point applies to the American Founding Fathers, many of whom also owned slaves, and also had good reason to know it was wrong.

In my view, they do indeed deserve condemnation for being slaveowners. But their achievements—including in helping to curb slavery over time—still justify honoring them, though we should not forget the wrongs they did. The scale of their liberty-enhancing achievements differentiates them from people like Columbus and the leaders of the Confederacy, who did little if any good to balance their great evil. On these points, my view is similar to that of Frederick Douglass. I summarized it here:

I have argued that, on balance, the Revolution gave an important boost to the antislavery cause, in both America and Europe—most notably by inspiring the “First Emancipation”—the abolition of slavery in the northern states, which was an essential prerequisite to eventual nationwide abolition.

I do not, believe, however, that this fact completely exempts the Founders from severe criticism on their record with respect to slavery. Most obviously, they still deserve condemnation for the fact that many of them were slaveowners themselves. People like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and George Mason all owned slaves throughout most of their lives, even though they well knew it was wrong and a violation of their own principles….

In addition to failing to free their own slaves, most of the Founders also failed to prioritize the abolition of slavery as an institution. They did take some important steps, such as promoting abolition in the northern states, barring the spread of slavery to the “Old Northwest,” and eventually banning the importation of new slaves from abroad. But they pretty clearly did not give abolishing the greatest moral evil in the new republic the priority it deserved….

With great power, comes great responsibility. When it comes to slavery, most of the people who wielded great power in revolutionary America and the early republic failed to fully live up to theirs.

But the condemnation they deserve for that failure must be balanced against the very real progress they made possible—including on the issue of slavery. In addition, we should remember that we ourselves may not be free of the same types of faults.

It is far from unusual for people to set aside principles when they collide with self-interest. How many of us really prioritize doing what is right when doing so requires us to pay a high price? We like to think that, if we were in Jefferson’s place, we would have freed our slaves and prioritized abolition. But it is far from clear we would actually have the courage and commitment to do so.




The post Rethinking Columbus appeared first on Reason.com.

what you need to know

in your inbox every morning