Sunday, July 26, 2015

Classic Sources of Virtue & Liberty

In May of 1825, writing to Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson set forth the classic sources of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, including human equality, self-government, and the individual rights of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” He wrote:

"This was the object of the Declaration of Independence.  Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject  … it was intended to be an expression of the American mind … All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc."[1] [Images above]. 

While each of his named political philosophers, Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, and Sidney, were advocates for “public right[s],” each of them were also moralists, and Jefferson was intimately familiar with all of their writings. As taught in his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines virtue as a disposition to behave in the right manner, and vice as deficiencies or excesses in character. In addition to the nature of the virtues and vices involved in moral evaluation, he addresses the methods of achieving happiness in human life. Cicero’s On Duties analyzes what is “honorable” (honestas) and what is “beneficial” (or advantageous), and what is honorable can also be called “moral,” “virtuous,” “ethical,” or “noble.” The main components of noble behavior according to Cicero are virtue and duty, and he concludes that moral worth is the only good and that virtue is sufficient for happiness. In his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke states that, “the necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty” and that, “Morality is the proper Science, and Business of Mankind in general.” We must also remember that near the end of his life, Aristotle had to flee Athens, Cicero was proscribed an enemy of Rome and assassinated, and Locke fled England to Holland in order to escape King Charles II.
Yet, while Locke was a member of Jefferson’s triumvirate of the three greatest minds (along with Bacon and Newton), he reserved his highest political praise for Algernon Sidney. In addition to citing Sidney’s writings as a source for the principles of The Declaration, he endorsed Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government as “a rich treasure of republican principles” and “probably the best elementary book of the principles of government, as founded in natural right which has ever been published in any language.”[2]  And, Jefferson, together with James Madison, stated that “the general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and society” were to be found in Locke's Second Treatise on Government and in Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government.[3]  So, while much less known than Locke in our day, Jefferson actually gave equal weight to Sidney’s Discourses alongside Locke in his proscribed course on the Constitution at the University of Virginia.
What makes Sidney unique as a source of Jefferson’s philosophy of virtue and happiness is that, unlike Locke who focused more on property rights, Sidney wrote profusely concerning the connection between liberty and virtue. Sidney stated, “The principle of liberty in which God created us …includes the chief advantages of the life we enjoy, as well as the greatest helps towards felicity, that is the end of our hopes in the other.”[4] In other words, “life, liberty, and happiness” are mutually dependent. Jefferson also quoted Sidney in his Commonplace Book, recording in his own hand, “If vice and corruption prevail, liberty cannot subsist; but if virtue have the advantage, arbitrary power cannot be established.”[5]  Much less fortunate than Locke, Sidney was arrested, accused with the crime of high treason against King Charles II and was executed on December 7, 1683. Known in the American colonies as the “true martyr of liberty”[6] the influence of Sidney on Jefferson and the principles of the Declaration of Independence cannot be discounted. 

[1] Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, ME 16:118-19.
[2] Thomas Jefferson to John Trumbull, 18 January 1789, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 14:467-68.
[3] Minutes of the Board of Visitors, March 4, 1825, ME 19:460-61 (cited as “Minutes”).
[4] Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (London: A. Millar, London, 1751)(cited as “Discourses”), I:2:5.
[5] Discourses, II:30:241-242.
[6] c.f. Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, Thomas G. West, ed. (Liberty Fund, Inc., Indianapolis, 1996), Introduction, xvi.
[7] Thomas Jefferson, Report for the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, August 4, 1818 (Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library).

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Character, Reputation and the Moral Sense

By: J. David Gowdy

The year is 1757.  George Washington is 25 years old and is engaged in the French-Indian War.  Near Charlottesville, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter, has just died at age 49 at his home in Shadwell.  Young Thomas is only 14 years old -- the third of ten children and the oldest son.  While his father was not well educated, he made sure that Thomas received schooling and had books to read.  Yet, with his father gone, what would he decide to do with his future?  Years later, speaking of this time in his life, Jefferson wrote to his eldest grandson (Thomas Jefferson Randolph): "When I consider that at fourteen years of age the whole care and direction of myself was thrown on myself entirely, without a relative or a friend qualified to advise or guide me, and recollect the various sorts of bad company with which I associated from time to time, I am astonished that I did not turn off with some of them, and become as worthless to society as they were. From the circumstances of my position, I was often thrown into the society of horseracers, cardplayers, foxhunters, [as well as] scientific and professional men … and many a time have I asked myself … "Well, which of these kinds of reputation should I prefer--that of a horsejockey, a foxhunter, … or the honest advocate of my country's rights?"[1]  As we know, young Thomas made his choice to develop his reputation, not as not a “horsejockey, cardplayer or foxhunter,” but as an “honest advocate of his country’s rights.”

In his short biography of George Washington, Founding Father, Richard Brookhiser, states that “Washington and his contemporaries thought of reputation as a thing that might be destroyed or sullied…reputation was held to be a true measure of one’s character—indeed, in some sense identical to it.”[2] In 1814, at the age of 70, Thomas Jefferson reflected on Washington’s character:

I think I knew General Washington intimately and thoroughly; and were I called on to delineate his character, it should be in terms like these. His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though, not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder … His integrity was most pure … He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man … it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance …We knew his honesty … I felt on his death, with my countrymen, that ‘verily a great man hath fallen this day in Israel.’[3]

While partisan animosities had splintered their previous friendship, Jefferson’s opinion of Washington’s virtues had not diminished. Perhaps his keen observations of Washington’s character traits may be indicative of those that Jefferson himself sought and valued in his own life: a penetrating mind, sound judgment, wisdom, goodness, integrity, and honesty.[4]  We may presume that to him, as to Washington and their contemporaries, one’s character and reputation were not to be trifled with and truly mattered in the grand scheme of things.  

In the founding generation, a man’s character, or his virtuous characteristics and behavior, meant both private and public virtue, civic and religious. America’s first dictionary published by Daniel Webster in 1828, defined “Virtue” as “moral goodness; the practice of moral duties and the abstaining from vice, or a conformity of life and conversation to the moral law. In this sense, virtue may be, and in many instances must be, distinguished from religion. The practice of moral duties from sincere love to God and his laws is virtue and religion. In this sense it is true, that virtue only makes our bliss below.” This contemporaneous definition fittingly describes Jefferson’s own pursuit of virtue. His moral philosophy was founded on an understanding of each person’s innate sense of right and wrong, or conscience. This moral sense, said Jefferson in a letter to Peter Carr, “may be strengthened by exercise … [and] is as much a part of man as his leg or arm.” In the same letter, Jefferson stated that “[you should] lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous &c. Consider every act of this kind as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties, & increase your worth.[5]  He also believed that the simple combination of morality and common sense was more likely to be found in the average man, such “a ploughman,” than in the highly educated man, such as “a professor,” who are “led astray by artificial rules.”[6] 

[1] Sarah N. Randolph, The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1872), p. 26.
[2]  Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (The Free Press, New York, NY, 1996), p.131.
[3] Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Walter Jones, January 2, 1814, ME 14:48-52.
[4] Concerning the character trait of honesty (without which no man’s reputation is honorable), Jefferson wrote, “He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truth without the world's believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.” (Letter to Peter Carr, September 19, 1785). Jefferson also said, “honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” (Letter to Nathaniel Macon, January 12, 1819).
[5] Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787, ME 6:257.
[6] Id.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Thomas Jefferson's Scrapbooks

In 2006, Jonathan Gross edited and introduced the world to “Thomas Jefferson’s Scrapbooks.”[1] As Richard Dixon of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society observed, “This is a book of Thomas Jefferson’s poetry; not poetry that he wrote, but poems that he collected. …Jefferson began the scrapbooks in 1801, and compiled them through his two terms as president. …This is not the standard Jefferson biography. The author calls it an ‘autobiography of the heart,’ and indeed it is. ”[2] Jefferson’s ‘autobiography of the heart’ contains numerous poetic references to virtue, virtuous anecdotes, and moral lessons (along with patriotic and other themes). As examples of these, see: “Patriotic Odes for the Year 1808” (p.120), “To Virtue” (p. 164),“The Choice of a Wife” (pp. 259-60), “Advice to Young Women” (p. 296),“Moral and Natural Beauty” (pp. 314-315), and “Epitaph on a Young Lady” (p. 384). Let us turn to one of these poems titled Advice to Young Women (Anonymous):

Detest disguise, remember 'tis your part
By gentle fondness to retain the heart.
Let duty, prudence, virtue, take the lead,
To fix your choice:  – but from it ne'er recede.
Abhor coquetry;  – spurn the shallow fool
Who measures out dull complements by rule,
And, without meaning, like a chattering jay;
Repeats the same dull strain throughout the day,
Are men of sense attracted by your fate?
Your well turn’d figure, or their compound grace?
Be mild and equal, moderately gay;
Your judgment rather than your wit display…
Disdain duplicity – from pride be free:
What every woman should, you then will be.

All of such poems he read, gathered, cut, pasted and compiled into four volumes during the eight years he served as President of the United States (and all the while also compiling “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.). No small task indeed, but more momentous in regard to his pursuit of virtue, and his desire to share that pursuit with his loved ones – whom, next in importance to his daughters, were his grandchildren. As his granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge reflected, “My Bible came from him, my Shakespeare, my first writing table, my first Leghorn hat, my first silk dress. …Our Grandfather seemed to read our hearts, to see our invisible wishes…” [3] His scrapbooks were most likely fashioned as much for them as they were for himself.    

[1] Jonathan Gross, Ed., Thomas Jefferson’s Scrapbooks: Poems of Nation, Family & Romantic Love (Steerforth Press, Hanover, 2006).
[2] Book Review online at
[3] Henry S. Randall, Life of Thomas Jefferson (Derby & Jackson, New York, 1858), pp.348-49.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Virtue vs. Tyranny

By: J. David Gowdy
When visiting Monticello, a visitor may observe that prominent in Thomas Jefferson’s parlor are portraits and paintings of historical figures of significance and importance to him and his worldview. These include his triumvirate of Bacon, Newton & Locke, but also Washington, Lafayette, John Adams, Mary Magdalene, and the Holy Family, among others. One painting in particular stands out – it is “Herodias Bearing the Head of John the Baptist.”  Let us reflect upon this scene.  As Luke recorded in chapter 3:19, John the Baptist had rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother's wife, “and all the other evil things he had done.” Herod had John arrested and thrown into prison. Then as Matthew records in chapter 14:6-7, “when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger.” May we surmise that to Jefferson, John the Baptist represented virtue versus tyranny, or morality versus corruption?
Considering that Thomas Jefferson found meaning in this painting of Herodias, may we also query whether it may have possessed both a religious and a political connotation that resonated both within him and with respect to his times?  As Professor Marvin Olasky has convincingly argued, the American War of Independence was fought for much more than economic freedom and “no taxation without representation.” Virtue, or morality, and the right to govern their religious affairs were paramount in the minds and hearts of the American patriots of ‘76. Their legacy and belief in divine rights was borne of pilgrims and puritans, and other persecuted religious minorities, who immigrated to the new world in search of religious freedom by escaping the entrenched tyranny of church and state which were deeply rooted for centuries in Great Britain and Europe.  In this regard, the Revolutionary War was as much a battle against “the corruption of 18th century British high society,” as it was about financial matters.[1] It is virtue that inspired these souls to battle against great odds, more than simple monetary gain. It is virtue battling against tyranny that inspired Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Virginians to risk treason against the king of England, and potential death by hanging as the penalty for their rebellion.  
The Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia shows Virtue, spear in hand, with her foot on the prostrate form of Tyranny, whose crown lies nearby.[2]  In one sense, this singular image of Virtue conquering Tyranny may justly sum up Jefferson’s political convictions. Not only does this theme reverberate in the life and writings of each author cited by him for the principles of the Declaration, but it is also recurrent in Jefferson’s own life. From his Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), to the Declaration of Independence (1776), to his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), and finally to his Statute for Religious Freedom (1786), Jefferson dedicated his public service to overcoming all forms of tyranny in government, church and state, through a constant appeal to moral principles and natural rights. From the Summary View, representing the sentiments of  “a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature” … he states that, “History has informed us that bodies of men, as well as individuals, are susceptible of the spirit of tyranny, [and states that] the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.” From the Statute for Religious Freedom, “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burdens, or by civil incapacitations …are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion.”  Lastly, in what may be deemed to be his personal motto, he stated, “for I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”[3]

[1] Marvin Olasky, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue (Regnery Publishing, Washington D.C., 1996) p. 142.
[2] The Seal was planned by George Mason and designed by George Wythe. See Kate Mason Rowland, The Life of George Mason, 1725-1792 (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1892) pp. 264–26.
[3] Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800, ME 10:175.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Federalist, Human Nature, and Forms of Government


By: Tony Williams  

In my last essay on the Federalist, titled “The Federalist and Human Nature,” I discussed Publius’ classical and Christian understanding of human nature as flawed but capable of virtue and worthy of trust.  The view of human nature was the basis of the kind of government the Founders would create.  Under the Constitution of the United States, they established a constitutional republic with many safeguards to control human nature as well as allow it thrive in liberty based upon the principle of government by consent of the governed. 

The human capacity for virtue led Publius to support the idea that republican self-government was possible.  If humans lacked that moral sense, then they were brutes who were meant to be governed by a tyrant who kept them on a short leash.   But, Publius clearly understood that humans were flawed and often followed their passions.  He was generally pessimistic that their experiment in liberty and self-government would endure and that humans were capable of governing themselves.  After all, the few historic examples of Greece, Rome, the Italian City-States, and the Dutch Republic had all failed.  The Americans would have to address the problems of human nature if they were to build “a new order for the ages.” 

The entire Federalist project is an explication of the new Constitution and its framework of government.  But, nowhere in the essays is there a better and simpler explanation of how Publius addressed the best form of government given the nature of humans than in Federalist No. 51.  James Madison wrote the paper and made the connection clear when he wrote, “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” 

The auxiliary precautions were the essential principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, bicameralism, and federalism.  The separation of powers was the most basic and important principle because consolidation of executive, legislative, and judicial power in one branch was the definition of tyranny.  “In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own.”  Hence, America has a Congress, a President, and a Supreme Court. 

However, the branches were interconnected with each other to limit tyranny through the principle of checks and balances.  Madison gives several examples such as the executive veto over congressional legislation, but there are numerous other examples in the Constitution such as the congressional override of a veto, the power of impeachment and removal from office, and Senate approval of executive treaties. 

Because the legislative branch was most representative of the people, and was delegated the power to enact laws, it was the strongest branch – and, thus, the most dangerous.  “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates,” Madison wrote, “The remedy for this incoveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches,” with different modes of election and powers.  Thus, the United States has a bicameral Congress with a House of Representatives and a Senate.  That is the principle of bicameralism, and indirectly, the separation of powers. 

Madison then admits the danger of having a more powerful central government at the national level.  The dangers of usurpation of powers to liberty are great so that the federal government is divided into “distinct and separate departments” with checks and balances.  Moreover, the oft-ignored principle of federalism was key.  “In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct government,” or, in other words, the federal and state governments.  The Constitution was replete with examples of sovereignty of state governments including the original appointment of Senators by state legislatures (changed by the Seventeenth Amendment), the Electoral College and presidential selection, the ratification of amendments by the states, the vote by state if a presidential election goes to the House, and the Tenth Amendment reserving all powers to the states that are not enumerated to the federal government.  The larger size of the American republic and the federal principle, Madison writes, will limit the ability of unjust majorities (factions) from trampling the rights of minorities.

The product of the incredible balancing act of preserving individual liberty and controlling human nature was the U.S. Constitution with its auxiliary precautions.  “The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.  It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.”  The end of this constitutional government and civil society is justice.  “It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”  In addition to the Separation of Powers and Federalism, Justice is also fundamentally the topic of Federalist No. 51, which offers profound civics lessons for both students and citizens. 

(previous installment - 2nd in series - "The Federalist and Human Nature":

See also: "Teaching the Federalist in Secondary Schools" --
Tony Williams is the WJMI Program Director and co-author with Stephen F. Knott of the forthcoming Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America (Sourcebooks). 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

WJMI Core Curriculum Courses

The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute ("WJMI") offers public and private secondary teachers a program of ten core courses to earn Virginia DOE annual recertification points for re-licensure and a certificate of completion as a “WJMI Fellow” in the study of the “American Founding Principles and Documents.”  Each course consists of four 50-minute lectures or presentations by distinguished scholars and authors with discussions and Q&A. Through this series of intensive seminars on America’s Founding Documents and the lives and writings of the Founding Fathers, teachers will examine founding principles and original source documents for use in the classroom.  WJMI Seminars are offered semi-annually in September and February at Prospect Hill near Charlottesville.

Jefferson & Madison’s Guide to the Constitution
Explore the original curriculum for the teaching of the Constitution at the University of Virginia as set forth by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the Board of Visitors on March 4, 1825. Key documents that will be studies are Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government, the Declaration of Independence, Federalist Nos. 1, 10, 39, 51, 78 and 84, and Washington’s Farewell Address.

George Washington
Explore the character and statesmanship of George Washington through his religious beliefs and political philosophy and his life as the Commander of the Continental Army, the Constitutional Convention, first President of the United States, and his Farewell Address.  Key documents that will be studied are the Rules of Civility, the Nicola Letter, the Circular Letter to the States, the Speech at Newburgh, the Retirement Speech to Congress, the First Inaugural, the First Thanksgiving Message, and the Farewell Address. 

James Madison
Explore the statesmanship and writings of founder James Madison through his struggle for religious liberty, the Constitutional Convention, the ratification of the Constitution, the creation of the Bill of Rights, and the party struggle of the 1790s.  Key documents that will be studied include the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Memorial & Remonstrance, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Madison’s Notes to the Constitutional Convention, excerpts from the Federalist, Madison June 8, 1789 speech, the Bill of Rights, and the essay “On Property.” 

Thomas Jefferson
Explore the work of Thomas Jefferson for religious and civil liberty and republican self-government through the making of the Declaration of Independence, his diplomatic mission to France, his thoughts on the Constitution, the party struggle of the 1790s, his presidency, and his founding of the University of Virginia.  Key documents that will be studied are the Summary View of the Rights of British America, the draft and final copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, exchange of letters with James Madison about the Constitution, his opposition to the Bank of the US, the Kentucky Resolutions, the First Inaugural Address, and his exchange of letters with John Adams.

Alexander Hamilton
Explore the life and constitutionalism of Alexander Hamilton through his arguments for a stronger central government during his Revolutionary War writings, the Constitutional Convention, the Ratification of the Constitution, and as the Secretary of the Treasury during the Washington administration.  Key documents that will be studied are the Farmer Refuted pamphlet, the June 18 speech at the Constitutional Convention, excerpts from the Federalist, the Report on Public Credit, the Opinion on the Constitutionality of the Bank of the US, and the Pacificus-Helvidius Debate. 

John Adams
Explore the life and statesmanship of John Adams through his political philosophy, marriage to Abigail Adams, battles for American independence, his constitutional work in Massachusetts, his diplomacy in Europe, and his vice-presidency and presidency.  Key documents that will be studied are the letters with Abigail Adams, his Dissertation on Feudal and Canon Law, Novanglus Essay, Thoughts on Government, the Massachusetts Constitution, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, the First Inaugural Address, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and his exchange of letters with Thomas Jefferson. 

Benjamin Franklin
Explore the life and statesmanship of Benjamin Franklin through his Autobiography, his 13 Virtues, his diplomacy in Europe, the alliance with France, and the Peace Treaty, and his role in the Constitutional Convention.  Key documents that will be studied are his Autobiography, Poor Richard’s Almanac, Article in the Federal Gazette on the “Structure of Government,” Speeches at the Constitutional Convention, and the Petition for the Abolition of Slavery. 

Religion & the Founding of the American Republic
Explore the role of religion on the colonists and the War for Independence, its influence on the American Founding, the religious beliefs of the Founders, the effects of the Enlightenment, and the relationship between religion and a virtuous Republic.  Key documents to be studied are the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Proclamations of Thanksgiving and Fasting, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, the First Amendment to the Constitution, and George Washington’s Letters to the Congregations.

The Constitution and its Ratification
Explore the events leading to the Constitutional Convention, the philosophical sources of principles of the Constitution, the debates in the Constitutional Convention, and the debates and process of ratification.  Key documents to be studied include the Articles of Confederation, selections from Locke, Sidney, and Montesquieu, Madison’s Notes of the Debates in the Constitutional Convention, and excerpts from Anti-Federalist writings and the Federalist Papers.

The Bill of Rights
Explore the Colonial origins of American liberties, the state constitutions, the debate over a Bill of Rights during the Constitutional Convention and ratification, the correspondence between Jefferson and Madison, and the significance and meaning of the First Amendment.  Key Documents to be studied are A Summary View of the Rights of British America, The Farmer Refuted, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Bill of Rights, and James Madison’s June 8, 1789 Speech in the House of Representatives.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Christopher Columbus and the New World

“Explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in the Republic of Genoa, Italy. In 1492, Columbus left Spain in the Santa Maria [image above], with the Pinta and the Niña along side. He has been credited for opening up the Americas to European colonization. 

Columbus first went to sea as a teenager, participating in several trading voyages in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. One such voyage, to the island of Khios, in modern day Greece, brought him the closest he would come to Asia.  His first voyage into the Atlantic Ocean in 1476 nearly cost him his life as the commercial fleet he was sailing with was attacked by French privateers off the coast of Portugal. His ship was burned and Columbus had to swim to the Portuguese shore and make his way to Lisbon, Portugal, where he eventually settled and married Felipa Perestrello. The couple had one son, Diego in about 1480. His wife died soon after and Columbus moved to Spain. He had a second son Fernando who was born out of wedlock in 1488 with Beatriz Enriquez de Arana.

Columbus participated in several other expeditions to Africa gaining knowledge of the Atlantic currents flowing east and west from the Canary Islands. Muslim domination of the trade routes through the Middle East makes travel to India and China difficult. Believing a route sailing west across the Atlantic would be quicker and safer, Columbus devised a plan to sail west to reach the East. He estimated the earth to be a sphere approximately 63% its actual size and the distance between the Canary Islands and Japan to be about 2,300 miles. Many contemporary nautical experts disagreed, adhering to the second century BC estimate of the earth's circumference at 25,000 miles. This made the distance between the Canary Islands and Japan about 12,200 statute miles. While experts disagreed with Columbus on matters of distance, they concurred that a westward voyage from Europe would be an uninterrupted water route. 

Rejected by the Portuguese king for a three-ship voyage of discovery, Columbus took his plan first to Genoa and then to Venice but was rejected there too. He then went to the Spanish monarchy of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, in 1486. Their nautical experts too were skeptical and initially, Columbus was rejected. The idea however, must have intrigued the monarchs, for they kept Columbus on a retainer. But their focus was on a war with the Muslims and Columbus would have to wait.

Columbus continued to lobby the royal court and soon after the Spanish army captured the last Muslim stronghold in Granada in January of 1492, the monarchs agreed to finance his expedition. In August, Columbus left Spain in the Santa Maria, with the Pinta and the Niña along side. After 36 days of sailing, [in the early hours of October 12, 1492] land was sighted, and after daybreak Columbus and his officers went ashore on a tiny island in the Bahamas called Guanahani by the natives. Columbus named it “San Salvador” (Holy Savior), claiming it for Spain. There he encountered a timid but friendly group of natives who were open to trade with the sailors exchanging glass beads, cotton balls, parrots and spears. The Europeans also noticed bits of gold the natives wore for adornment.

Columbus and his men continued their journey, visiting the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and meeting with the leaders of the native population. During this time, the Santa Maria was wrecked on a reef off the coast of Hispaniola. With the help of some islanders, Columbus' men salvaged what they could and built the settlement Villa de la Navidad ("Christmas Town") with lumber from the ship. Thirty-nine men stayed behind to occupy the settlement. Convinced his exploration had reached Asia, he set sail for home with the two remaining ships.”[1]  Columbus would subsequently return to the New World on three more voyages.

Perhaps nothing has been more forgotten, and nothing irked his contemporaries more, than Columbus’s frank assertion that he was divinely chosen. “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which He spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John after having spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah,” Columbus wrote to a friend and confidant of the queen, “and he showed me where to find it.” [2]

Columbus was convinced that the key to his enterprise was the spiritual gifts given him by the Lord: “He bestowed the arts of seamanship upon me in abundance, and has given me what was necessary from [astronomy], geometry, and arithmetic; and has given me adequate inventiveness in my soul.” Columbus was certain that God provided these gifts to be used in His service, “encouraging me to go forward, and without ceasing they inflame me with a sense of great urgency.” [3]

Finally, in a letter to the king and queen of Spain (who financed his first voyage), he wrote, “Our Lord unlocked my mind, sent me upon the sea, and gave me fire for the deed. Those who heard of my [enterprise] called it foolish, mocked me, and laughed. But who can doubt but the Holy Ghost inspired me?” [4]

In recent decades Columbus has been portrayed as a greedy gold-seeker, a man guilty of genocide and a destroyer of the environment. "It became popular to view Columbus as the scapegoat, as a man you could blame every evil of the modern world on. That became the politically correct way to look at him. It’s like blaming Einstein for Hiroshima and Chernobyl.  Columbus opened up the new world ... but we shouldn’t blame him for everything that other people did wrong." – Clark B. Hinckley (author of biography on Columbus).
2.  Columbus to Doña Juana de la Torre, Raccolta di documenti e studi pubblicati della R. Commissione Colombiana, pt. I, vol. ii; I Scriti di Cristoforo Colombo, ed. Cesare de Lollis (Rome: 1894), p. 66.
3.  Ibid., p. 79.
4.  Jacob Wasserman, Columbus, The Don Quixote of the Seas (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1959, pp. 19-20).

See also: 
The Historical Falsification of Columbus' "Crimes"