POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Columbus and the Last Hope of Mankind

by David Trumbull -- October 7, 2011

“We do not read even of the discovery of this continent, without feeling something of a personal interest in the event; without being reminded how much it has affected our own fortunes and our own existence. It would be still more unnatural for us, therefore, than for others, to contemplate with unaffected minds that interesting, I may say that most touching and pathetic scene, when the great discoverer of America stood on the deck of his shattered bark, the shades of night falling on the sea, yet no man sleeping; tossed on the billows of an unknown ocean, yet the stronger billows of alternate hope and despair tossing his own troubled thoughts; extending forward his harassed frame, straining westward his anxious and eager eyes, till Heaven at last granted him a moment of rapture and ecstasy, in blessing his vision with the sight of the unknown world.”—Daniel Webster, First Bunker Hill Monument Oration, 1825
As this column goes to press I am on business in the City of Washington in the District of Columbia—our capitol city, named for the first President of the United States, that indispensable man in the early years of our Republic. The city is located within the federal district authorized by the Constitution, formed by Congress in 1790, and named for the Italian discoverer of America who sailed under the flag of Spain.

When I return home to Boston I shall be surrounded by the familiar sights—Old North Church, the Old State House, Old South Meeting House, and the other stops on the Freedom Trail—that remind us of Boston’s unique Revolutionary War history. At 236 years distance from 1775, we are nearly two-and-a–half centuries removed from the beginning of the American War of Independence. In like manner, 1775 was a bit more than two-and-a-half centuries (283 years to be precise) removed from Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Independence and the Revolutionary War mark not the beginning, but the halfway point in the history of European civilization in America.

In his remarks, quoted above, Mr. Webster, on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, traced the origins of the United States not to the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock (although he mentions them in the oration), nor to the earlier English settlement of Virginia (not even mentioned by Webster), but to Columbus’ first “sight of the unknown world.”

Others came here earlier—possibly the Vikings, maybe other Europeans, and certainly the American Indians who arrived most probably from Asia by land-bridge to Alaska. But Webster—and many of us concur—begins our history with Columbus. All month we celebrate Italian-American Heritage. Monday we celebrate the brave and persevering Italian navigator who opened the way for immigrants from every nation to settle in this New World and create the United States that remains, to quote again from that Webster’s speech, “the last hope of mankind.”