Once upon a time, and not all that long ago, today's date was officially recognized as the day Christopher Columbus landed in what was called (by Europeans) the New World.
Four years ago in this space, I noted that because the Americas were already populated when Columbus landed here in 1492 (and because he was trying to find China anyhow) a segment of progressive thought had long balked at lionizing Columbus. I also wrote that in our highly partisan political environment, the anti-Columbus movement may have attained critical mass. Perhaps that has happened: 14 states and more than 130 U.S. cities have replaced Columbus Day with some version of "Indigenous Peoples Day." It's still a federal holiday, however, as well as a source of great pride to Italian Americans, so scrapping it isn't going to be as easy as hiding, defacing, or even destroying Christopher Columbus statues, which has occurred in cities from Baltimore to San Francisco.
This year, Joe Biden walked a fine line in the annual Columbus Day presidential proclamation from the White House. Biden simultaneously lauded Columbus' nautical achievements -- and tipped his cap to the contributions Italian Americans have made to this country -- before launching into an obligatory denunciation of "the painful history of wrongs and atrocities" inflicted on Native Americans by European settlers. The White House statement was a work of art, really, designed to please multiple constituencies, as such pronouncements should aim to do. In an inadvertent tip of the cap to Donald Trump voters, Biden even capitalized several non-proper nouns, as his predecessor did on Twitter for nearly five years.
There is an obvious solution to all this angst over America's past: A three-day weekend celebrating (in reverse chronological order of their arrival on this continent) Christopher Columbus, Leif Erikson, and the many tribes and civilizations whose ancestors sailed or walked from Asia a thousand years before the Vikings plied the seven seas. President Biden, it seems to me, might be open to this idea.
As for old Christopher Columbus himself -- the man, not the symbol -- there are reasons he's a significant historic figure.
Little is known about the early life of the man credited with "discovering" the Americas. In Spain, the nation that financed his wanderings, he's called Cristóbal Colón. In his native Italy he's Cristoforo Colombo.
For decades, U.S. elementary school students were taught that Christopher Columbus believed the Earth to be flat. This assertion apparently originated from an 1828 biography by Washington Irving. It's absurd. A seasoned sailor, Columbus knew the world was round, as did all successful 15th century seafarers. Yet, he did have one monumental misconception about our planet, and it was common at the time: He had no idea how large it was.
This was a fateful miscalculation. Assuming that the riches of Asia were less than 4,000 kilometers from Europe emboldened Columbus to sail his small three-ship armada westward. If he'd known his destination was really 20,000 kilometers away, the Spanish crown probably wouldn't have funded the venture: No ship at that time could carry enough food and water to make a voyage that far.
Or maybe Columbus would have figured out a way. He'd first gone to sea at age 10 and had proven his resourcefulness many times. After surviving a shipwreck off southwestern Portugal in 1476, Columbus saw a business opportunity: In Lisbon he launched an enterprise making maps and trading ocean charts and books. He bought sugar in Madeira and traded it in ports as far away as Iceland and Tunis. He plied the waters of the Aegean Sea, taught himself Latin and Spanish, and studied the ocean currents en route to the Canary Islands.
Somewhere along the line, Columbus got the idea that those currents could carry him to Cathay, as China was called, and the supposed riches of the Orient -- known as the Indies.
After failing to sell his vision to the court in Portugal, Columbus' founding willing takers in King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. He certainly had the right first name for the mission, as the rivalry between Islam and Christendom was an underlying subtext of the great voyage of 1492.
Not knowing of the existence of North America or South America -- or of the Pacific Ocean, for that matter -- was not a minor drawback. Perhaps if he had spoken the local language when he visited Iceland, Columbus could have picked up oral histories (accurate, as it turns out) claiming that some five centuries earlier, a Norwegian sailor from Iceland named Leif Erikson had explored a continent on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean.
But Columbus didn't know any of that, and so in the first week of August, this Genoese native left the village of Palos de la Frontera, Spain. With a good working knowledge of ocean currents and his wildly inaccurate maps, Christopher Columbus boarded his flagship, the Santa Maria, and set sail on his rendezvous with history.
It was on this date in 1492 that he and his men first went ashore. They weren't in the Indies, of course. They were in the Bahamas, probably a place now known as Watling Island, which Columbus promptly named San Salvador. A couple of weeks later, he found a larger land mass that he thought was China. He was actually looking at Cuba.
"This is," he said upon going ashore, "the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.