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Monday is Columbus Day.  It was 526 years ago this month that Christopher Columbus and his group of small ships crossed the Atlantic and discovered the “New World,” a feat admired by centuries of Americans but demonized by academics and activists for the past generation.  So who has it right and why does the answer matter a lot for America’s future?

In a piece for “The Daily Signal,” contributor Jarrett Stepman vigorously defends Columbus and explains why he believes critics are unfair in their denunciation of Columbus.

Until the past couple of decades, Columbus Day was seen as a minor holiday commemorating a man that most Americans admired.  Stepman says the most notable criticism of the explorer came from communists like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 1800’s and last century, when white nationalists protested Columbus for being Catholic and an immigrant.

But from the earliest days of our republic, Columbus was widely admired.

“The founders liked him because he stood for science.  He stood for discovery.  He stood for what America would become.  He was a very hopeful figure and I think that’s why he became such a widely popular figure in America,” said Stepman.

In 1992, on the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus, protesters at Berkeley held the first “Indigenous People’s Day” to criticize Columbus for allegedly exploiting and brutalizing the natives he encountered in the West.

That protest was largely a dud, but the effort to cast Columbus in a different light has only grown since.  Now, even Columbus, Ohio, is refusing to observe Columbus Day.

“In the past 20-30 years, it’s gotten much, much worse.  So today, where you have statues coming down, you have people attacking Columbus very frequently.  So there’s been a snowball effect in which Columbus, who used to be universally admired, is universally attacked or simply dismissed as a bad person we should do away with and just let disappear from the American pantheon,” said Stepman.

As a result, Columbus becomes a flash point for both sides of our cultural divide.  Some see him embodying the best of the American spirit and others see him as a symbol of oppression

“This is what America’s about.  When you think of a man going to the moon, that is the spirit of Columbus.  There are a lot of people, especially in modern society on the very far left, who don’t like the seeds of American civilization.  They think it’s rotten to the core.  They think root and branch it just needs to be pulled up and we need to start again,” said Stepman.

Stepman believes simply understanding what Columbus and his crew were willing to do is worthy of admiration, taking boats – none of them longer than 60 feet – across an ocean without knowing what they would find on the other side.

“Nobody had done this before.  He did this on three ships.  He did this with a sometimes mutinous crew that wasn’t always favorable to him.  He went through incredible hardship.  That really requires incredible foresight and boldness.  Don’t we want future Americans to have that kind of boldness?” said Stepman.

But did Columbus brutalize the indigenous peoples?  Stepman says the evidence shows Columbus was not the wealth-gobbling predator that liberal historians portray him to be.  Instead, he was actually removed as governor in the New World for punishing Spaniards who mistreated the natives.

That’s not to say there was no brutality.  Stepman says the world in general was much more brutal then and Columbus did respond when warring tribes attacked his people.

He also had a higher mission than making Spain wealthy.

“Certainly he was a man who wanted the recognition for what he did, but he wanted to spread Christianity.  He wasn’t just a man driven entirely by greed.  He was an explorer who wanted to bring his religion and he wanted to save souls in a new land.  That is a primary motivation of Columbus,” said Stepman.

So why does the answer to whether Columbus is a hero or a villain matter so much?  Stepman says the relentless effort to redefine our past will have a major impact future generations.

“We should believe in an America in which we continue to build statues to more individuals, more people who are bold and daring that accomplish great things in our time.

“If we’re destroying our past, we’re really wiping out our future too.  We’ll be a nation with no past and no future.  I think that’s a very dangerous moment in this country’s history and I think it’s an unfortunate one,” said Stepman.