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On this day in 1492, Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) landed on the shores of San Salvador, an island in the Bahamas. There is no doubt that his “discovery” changed the course of history. There is also little doubt that Columbus and his crew of ninety men demonstrated great courage and perseverance, venturing into the vast unknown. As we reflect on history, however, we should not ignore its dark side, acknowledging that not everything about Columbus’ exploration was positive. We know, for example, that many of the native people Columbus encountered were either killed or enslaved. It’s hard, therefore, to see Columbus as either exclusively a hero or a villain of history.
Columbus Day was first declared a federal holiday by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937. As with all federal holidays, the president issues an official proclamation to honor the day each year. The careful wording of the following excerpts from President Barack Obama’s 2014 proclamation reflects the two points of view concerning Columbus’ influence on history:
In a new world, a history was written. It tells the story of an idea — that all women and men are created equal — and a people’s struggle to fulfill it. And it is a history shared by Native Americans, one marred with long and shameful chapters of violence, disease, and deprivation. . . .
Columbus’s historic voyage ushered in a new age, and since, the world has never been the same. His journey opened the door for generations of Italian immigrants who followed his path across an ocean in pursuit of the promise of America. Like Columbus, these immigrants and their descendants have shaped the place where they landed. Italian Americans have enriched our culture and strengthened our country. They have served with honor and distinction in our Armed Forces, and today, they embrace their rich heritage as leaders in our communities and pioneers of industry.
On Columbus Day, we reflect on the moment the world changed. And as we recognize the influence of Christopher Columbus, we also pay tribute to the legacy of Native Americans and our Government’s commitment to strengthening their tribal sovereignty. We celebrate the long history of the American continents and the contributions of a diverse people, including those who have always called this land their home and those who crossed an ocean and risked their lives to do so. With the same sense of exploration, we boldly pursue new frontiers of space, medicine, and technology and dare to change our world once more. (1)
Today’s Challenge: Hero or Villain? Your Verdict on History
When we study history, it’s easy to sometimes oversimplify, labeling individuals as either great heroes of history or infamous villains. An interesting exercise is to explore historic individuals, like Columbus, who don’t fit so easily into either camp. Who is an individual from history who is not seen as purely a hero nor a villain? Once you have selected your individual, do some research, gathering evidence on which side of the hero/villain continuum the individual should sit. Don’t put him or her in the middle; instead, argue your verdict like a judge, stating your case for whether the person is a hero or a villain. If you’re working with a number of people, have a debate, so that both sides are presented.
For an example go to the website for Intelligence Squared where you can see a 2014 debate entitled “Napoleon the Great?” which argued the historical legacy of France’s leader (2). (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
1-The White House. Presidential Proclamation – Columbus Day, 2014. Public Domain. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/10/10/presidential-proclamation-columbus-day-2014.
2-Intelligence Squared.com. Napoleon The Great? A Debate with Andrew Roberts, Adam Zamoyski, and Jeremy Paxman. 8 Oct. 2014. http://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/napoleon-the-great-andrew-roberts-adam-zamoyski/.