We recently observed Columbus Day, now also known as Indigenous Peoples Day. Columbus Day, of course, recognizes the achievements of Christopher Columbus, whose voyages in the 15th century resulted in his discovery of the Americas.
Earlier this year, the city of Columbus, Ohio, so named for the explorer, spent $90,000 to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus, gifted to the city from Genoa, Italy, in 1955.
There is no doubt that Christopher Columbus has a somewhat controversial legacy. He and his crew were not the first to come to the Americas, but his discoveries resulted in much exploration and growth of the American continents, including the beginning of extensive trading between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Ultimately, the founding of our nation was a result of Columbus and others’ exploration of this land.
Of course, when Columbus arrived, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were already here. The results of his exploration forever changed their lives and not for the better. Columbus was a courageous explorer whose actions forever changed the world, but at the expense of the indigenous people.
I am not going to argue for or against the removal of the Columbus statue. I do want to offer some perspective at a time where statue removal is becoming a common practice in the U.S.
It is easy to look at Columbus or any other significant person in person and, judging by today’s standards, see their faults and flaws and thus declare them “unacceptable.” However, history is history, and it is important to look back through the lens of the time that these historical figures lived.
Regardless of their shortcomings, each well-known person from history is important because they contributed in some way to the overarching story that underpins who we are as a society today. Knowing and understanding our history gives perspective to where we have been and how we have gotten where we are. This understanding can help us navigate the path forward for our country, especially amidst troubled times.
Historian and author David McCullough had this to say about the importance of knowing and understanding our history.
“There’s present-day time and then there’s the time of history. And the best and most effective people in public life, without exception, have been people who had a profound and very often lifelong interest in history. You have to understand history in order to understand who we were, how we got to where we are, why we are the way we are, and where we might be going.”
It is easy to get caught up in “present-day thinking” when we do not understand our past. It is equally easy to judge historical figures based on today’s standards and expectations. The problem with doing so is we negate their contribution to our shared history, regardless of whether we view their contribution positively or negatively.
Every one of our historical figures were human and therefore flawed in some way. Nonetheless, they are a part of our history. Jon Meacham, when discussing founder Thomas Jefferson’s controversial life said, “Let’s not be anachronistic. (In order to understand Jefferson) We have to put ourselves back in that world, in that time.”
Meacham went further regarding the faults and failings of history makers. He said, “When you look at the great figures, their vices were almost as large as their virtues. To me, the whole world turns on the word ‘almost.’ To me, it’s remarkably inspirational that flawed, sinful human beings were able to, at moments of great crisis, transcend those limitations and leave the country a little better off than it was before.”
Before we rush to remove more statues, maybe we should invest some time to understand not only the person, but also the time in which they lived, their strengths as well as their flaws, and what their contribution to history was, be it for better or for worse.
In 2019, a statue of Delaware’s native son Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States, was erected in downtown Delaware.
Hayes was wounded five times fighting for the Union Army during the Civil War. As governor of Ohio, Hayes was instrumental in the founding of The Ohio State University. As president, he fought for equality and the ability of newly freed slaves to enjoy full rights as U.S. citizens. After his term as president, Hayes championed education to allow all people to improve their lives. At the beginning of his presidency, however, Hayes ordered the removal of the remaining U.S. troops in the South, effectively ending Reconstruction. Historians continue to debate the appropriateness and impact of that decision.
Is it appropriate that we in Delaware honor one of our own, a man who was able to rise up from humble beginnings to become a member of the U.S. Congress, governor of Ohio, and president of the United States at a difficult and uncertain time in our nation’s history? The answer is yes, even though we might not support all his decisions and actions given the benefit of hindsight and history.
We cannot change our history, nor can we cover it up, nor should we. One of the traits that has always made America great is our ability and willingness to learn from the past, address and overcome what is wrong, and move forward and advance, while holding on to all that is good about us. We can acknowledge our past, flaws and all, and move forward together in our pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. And the statues, they just remind us of where we have been, not where we are going.
Kent Shafer is currently vice mayor in Delaware. He is a former commander with the Columbus Division of Police and works as an author, consultant, motivational speaker and trainer.