Address of President William Howard Taft
June 8, 1912
We are gathered here today to dedicate this beautiful memorial to the greatest mariner of history, who four centuries and two decades ago opened to the possibilities of Christian civilization nearly one-half of the geographical world. The story of his struggles is dimmed by the lack of details as to his early career, and by those disputes which naturally arise over the humble and apparently unimportant life of one whose subsequent achievements give intense interest to every circumstance leading to his ultimate success.
The history of the voyages of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is as full of courage, enterprise and daring as that of any century in which civilized man has taken part, and there is no voyage of any of the brave navigators of Spain, Italy, Portugal, England or of the Scandinavian sailors that involved greater faith, greater self-sacrifice and the overcoming of greater and well founded fears than the voyage of Columbus in 1492. The struggle that he and his friends made with the monarchs of Europe, and in the vestibules of palaces, with the frequent disappointments and discouragements, only emphasizes his real inspiration, and the confidence that he had in the theories as to the form of the earth, and as to the result of his sailing westward in order to reach the East Indies.
It is most difficult for us by any effort of the imagination to take in the problem which Columbus solved. The erroneous ideas that were held of geography and of the physical characteristics of the earth, the exaggeration of the dangers – great as they were – which superstition and legend prompted, made the plan of Columbus to set sail out into the ‘dark ocean,’ as the Atlantic was then called, to the eastern shore of Asia, on the theory that the world was round – an instance of courage that find few parallels. He knew, as every mariner knew, the tremendous power of nature in a tempest, and he could not but fully realize the impending and constant danger to vessels of the size of his cockleshells in an ordinary struggle with the usual winds and storms. Six times did he cross the ocean alive; twice were his bones taken from one side to the other to find a resting place. The story of his life reveals defects of temperament and the existence of some motives under temptation that show him human, but the impression left after a study of his character, leads to a full recognition of the greatness and dignity of the man, the high ideals that prompted his almost superhuman efforts, the patience and tenacity that attended every discouragement, the loyalty to his sovereigns when put to grievous test, and the final resignation to the will of God in the sad ending of a tried, tempestuous, but most notable and useful life.
It is true that there were other mariners as skilled as Columbus, as brave in exposing themselves to danger as he ws, in that heyday of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese manhood, and the risks they ran, the dangers they encountered and survived, arouse in the reader of the present day amazement and profound admiration. But the supreme merit was his, to do first that which, until he did it, presented unknown terrors to the adventurer.
A few years after Columbus came Magellan, Balboa, Vasco da Gama, the Cabots and many others. The circumnavigation of the globe in vessels in which it took months and years to make the voyage, show a spirit of adventure, a desire for knowledge, a willingness to sacrifice everything for it that make a real, distinct period in the world’s history, but Columbus was the first.
He was much greater as a mariner than as an administrator and governor of native peoples. His failure in this regard was doubtless due to a lack of preparation for the difficult problems which an assumption of control over the natives involved. He little understood the nature of the Indian. He had but few resources, and he was beset by jealousies and treachery at home and in the islands. His brother, Bartholemew, seems to have been a much more successful administrator, but intrigues in Spain defeated his purpose. The loyalty of the brothers to the sovereigns who sent them out brught them back in chains to their adopted country, while the West Indian natives were subjected to cruelties and suffering growing out of the cupidity of those who succeeded Columbus until the natives faded away and disappeared.
The controversies over those who are responsible for his success, and those who are to be charged with his defeats, are interesting, but not, it seems to me, full of the importance which the writers ascribe to them. The main and greatest factor in the life and history of Columbus is, first, his confidence in his geographical theories; second, the power of persuasiveness in respect to them and the communication of the faith he had in them to those with whom he talked; and, third, his never-failing determination to expend everything he had of effort, property and life in the pursuit of his purpose. He was human and used some arts to invite public sympathy and public interest. he was human and loved the exercise of power, and reserved to himself and his family a hereditary claim to political control in the new world which he was about to open. He was human and had some weaknesses as to acquisitiveness, but all these defects only served to emphasize and bring out in greater relief his intense devotion to one idea, and that idea the one which developed under him and those who came after him, doubled the world to the knowledge of mankind, and made possible the four centuries’ growth from the good which he sowed – a growth which we typify in this monument of today under the shadow of the Capitol which represents in its highest degree the progress of Christian civilization, the advance of human happiness, the development of popular government and the maintenance and preservation of human rights.
The struggles of Columbus present the basis of a truly epic poem, and make him a hero whose great and exceptional virtues command respect and veneration.
It is interesting to note that now, as we celebrate the memory of Columbus, we are nearing the completion of that great enterprise, the Panama Canal, which opens the passageway to the East Indies at the very place where Columbus sought it as a natural waterway and found it not, in the narrow isthmus between the north and south continents, and where 400 years ago Charles V, the successor of the sovereigns of Columbus, projected such a passageway, which the world has waited all this time since to see constructed.
Columbus little realized the immense expanse of that wide ocean that separated him and this land he had discovered from the East Indies that he sought, but his theory was right, however lacking in knowledge of geographical distances and details the fact has shown him to be.
It is most appropriate in this beautiful place in which the visitor to the country’s capital first sets foot upon the soil of the small District that is the only territory in which this great government exercises exclusive jurisdiction, that he should be confronted by a statue of the great mariner whose genius and daring opened this half world to progress and development. In front of a railway terminal station combining utility and art in the highest degree, and brilliantly illustrating the progress of the human race in transportation, and in a plaza that by a graceful sweep leads the eye up to the home of liberty and popular power, Columbus may well have his greatest and most fitting memorial.