By Steve Huntley
May 20, 2022
Sanity may be on the verge of breaking out in Chicago. Word is that Mayor Lori Lightfoot is leaning toward restoring two statues of trailblazing sailor-explorer and history-maker Christopher Columbus to city parks.
The hysteria over historic figures who don’t measure up to today’s woke standards reaches its peak in the left’s hatred of the discoverer of the new world, whose Chicago statues were taken down in the dark of night nearly two years ago under threat from fanatics.
The woke crowd lays at Columbus’ feet blame for all the unforgivable sins of the new world —colonization, the devastation of native populations and slavery. They see only a barbaric conqueror.
The explorer has champions to defend him against that characterization. Still, brutality indeed was a passenger on his voyages. That was true not because of Columbus, but because the 15th century was a savage epoch populated by brutal men — like most times in history, as people in Ukraine, Yemen, Congo and other unfortunate places in the world can testify to today.
The 15th century saw plenty of cruel warfare and conquest, the first use of cannon in battle, the bloody fall of Constantinople to Ottoman invaders, the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and the start of European slave trading, which would expand into a huge transatlantic commerce of Europeans buying Africans, mostly from African slave traders, and selling the slaves in the Americas. Brutal times breed brutal men and vice versa.
Monuments pay tribute to Columbus for the qualities that made him stand out from the savagery of that time — and also for exemplifying the best attributes of that era, most notably the quest for knowledge manifest in the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration.
With the fall of Constantinople cutting off trade routes to the lucrative East, Columbus looked westward across the vast, uncharted Atlantic Ocean to find a new route to Asia. He petitioned the rulers of Spain to fund his vision, organized the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria fleet, set sail into unknown waters, plumbed his incredible talent and skills in dead reckoning to navigate his way west, overcame the threat of mutiny as a voyage expected to last weeks stretched to two months, and finally arrived at what he incorrectly thought were islands off India.
It was a heroic feat.
While his voyage of discovery was a historic triumph in its own right, just as significantly it marked only the first of many new chapters in mankind’s long story. The crowning culmination of his opening of the new world was of course the subsequent establishment of the United States of America, a beacon of freedom, a bulwark against the worst dictatorships of the 20th century and an economic miracle that demonstrates the value, power and poverty-reduction character of free markets.
But to the woke crowd, the American story is just another sorry tale driven by villains such as … Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Statues of them also have landed in the fanatics’ crosshairs. You see, the important thing to know about the two most revered Founding Fathers is that they owned slaves.
Slavery, America’s original sin, was an everyday reality in the 18th century and a host of slaveowners dwelled among the population of 2.5 million in the 13 colonies. But only one man among that populace, slave owner Jefferson, had the intelligence, eloquence and understanding to articulate the universal yearning for freedom and liberty. The other delegates to the 1776 Continental Congress recognized this and chose him to compose the Declaration of Independence. His world-shaking words in the Declaration’s opening — “all men are created equal” — set the new nation on a course to spread liberty eventually to all its citizens and inspire liberation movements around the globe. America’s first abolition movements sprang up after the Revolutionary War. That’s because after Jefferson’s words, an ever increasing number of Americans viewed slavery not an everyday reality, but an intolerable evil.
The newly created United States remained home to multitudes of slaveowners but only one man, again a slave owner, Washington, had the wisdom to guide the young country’s small, under-funded, poorly supplied, at times inadequately trained army to victory against the military of the mightiest empire in history. That same slave owner again displayed the foresight and insight needed to set the republic’s new government on the right track by stepping down from the presidency after only two terms rather than linger on to create a new world version of monarchy.
The point about Columbus, Jefferson and Washington is that we all have feet of clay. What historic monuments celebrate are those who rise above our common human frailty, weaknesses, shortcomings and sins to demonstrate by inspiring example that we also have in our nature the potential for good, for strength and bravery, for virtue and for amazing triumphs — to show what a wonderful adventure life can be. Or, to use the eloquent words of Abraham Lincoln, another target of woke witch hunters, to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”
Woke historians and activists can see only faults and failings. Their small, petty, jealous minds can’t acknowledge achievement or recognize greatness. For them, the glass is not just half empty, it is leaking big time as well. The woke look at history from the bottom of a toilet bowl, so it is no wonder they can only see, well, you know what.
Count me among the vast majority who admire and salute human greatness and achievement. If Lightfoot, as forecast, restores the Columbus statues to Grant and Arrigo parks in Chicago, I’ll break out a bottle of my favorite scotch and toast her — and Christopher Columbus, famously called the admiral of the ocean sea and a hero for the ages.
Steve Huntley is a retired Chicago journalist living in Austin, Texas, who spent most of his career, almost three decades, with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he was a feature writer, metro reporter, night city editor, metropolitan editor, editorial page editor and a columnist for the opinion pages. Before that he was a reporter and editor with United Press International (UPI) in the South and Chicago, and Chicago bureau chief and a senior editor in Washington with U.S. News & World Report. Northwestern University Press has issued soft cover and eBook editions of Knocking Down Barriers: My Fight for Black America by Truman K. Gibson Jr. with Steve Huntley, a memoir of a Chicagoan who was a member of President Roosevelt’s World War II Black Cabinet working to desegregate the military.