Many critics argue that Christopher Columbus gave us a devil’s bargain. In October 1492, that Italian explorer, working for Spain, opened America to his fellow Europeans. The result: We got a prosperous New World by impoverishing, enslaving, and murdering the natives who were already here.
But this view fails to distinguish between two types of exploitation—one over other humans and one over nature, the former of which should be expunged from our moral codes and civilized society, the latter of which is the essence of morality and civilization.
On the other hand, many settlers took a different path—especially in North America, which had far fewer natives. They came to the New World to build their own lives. They did not prosper by conquering other men but, rather, by conquering nature. They had to clear the land, plant, and sow crops. They had to practice the trades of carpenters, masons, loggers, miners, blacksmiths, and tailors to build their towns and to create the necessities for life and prosperity. In the centuries that followed, their descendents—including Americans today—built the richest, most prosperous country on Earth.
Today it is chic among back-to-nature types to idealize the pre-Columbian natives and question whether what we have today constitutes real progress. This silliness was given philosophical credence by the eighteenth century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of the “noble savage.” No doubt many individual natives were as noble as one could be in savage circumstances, but America before Columbus was no Eden.
Let’s put aside the wars between tribes, outright brutality, and the like, and just look at the daily lives of the natives before Columbus. Life was lived simply, in primitive cycles. Natives inhabited crude hovels and hunted or used subsistence farming to sustain themselves. Yes, they could enjoy family and friends, tell tales of bringing down buffalo, and imagine that the stars in the sky painted pictures of giant bears and other creatures. The ancestors of Europeans did the same.
But true human life, either for an individual or society, is not an endless, stagnant cycle. Rather, it is a growth in knowledge, power over the environment, and individual liberty.
Perhaps many pre-Columbian natives were content with their lot in a simple, animal-like existence. But what of young native children who wondered why family members sickened and died and if there were ways unknown to the shamans to relieve their pain or cure them; if there were ways to build shelters that would resist bitter winters, stifling summers, and the storms that raged in both seasons; if there were ways to guarantee that food would always be abundant and starvation no longer a drought away; why plants grow and what those lights in the sky really were; and whether they could ever fly like birds and observe mountains from the height of eagles? Where were the opportunities for these natives?
Three ideas from Enlightenment Europe provided keys to true human life. First was the idea that we as individuals have a right to our own dreams and desires, that we are not simply tied to a tribe or the wishes of others, that civilization means that individuals are free to live their own lives, as long as they acknowledge the similar freedom of others.
Second was the understanding that through the rational exercise of our minds we can truly discover the nature of the world around us, replacing myths—no matter how beautiful or poetic—with real knowledge.
And third was the appreciation that such knowledge allows us to bend nature to our wills. Through our thoughts and actions we gain the pride of achieving the best within us.
The clash between the cultures of pre-Columbian natives and European immigrants certainly produced injustices for natives. But it would have been unjust for those natives to expect the immigrants to hold themselves to the level of primitive cultures and beliefs. The true long-term tragedy is that so many of the descendants of the pre-Columbian peoples in North America ended up on reservations rather than integrated into a society that offers opportunities for each individual to excel.
Columbus opened a whole new land for those who would tame nature and build a new, free, and prosperous nation. We should celebrate the opportunity for America that he gave us—not apologize for it.