October 13th is Columbus Day in the United States, a time when Americans mark the beginning of their story. On October 12th, 1492, three ships reached the outlying islands of what is now the Bahamas. Their commander was an Italian navigator in the service of Spain -- Christopher Columbus. Columbus was seeking a short route from Europe to Asia. But his discovery changed forever the way men looked at the world.
Born in 1451, Columbus was a child of the Renaissance, a time when Europeans began to recover the knowledge and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. The invention of the printing press in 1440 spurred a revolution in communication and learning. The works of the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, and other classical thinkers were widely published and led many to question age-old assumptions about the physical world and about human relations. The European astronomers Copernicus and Galileo shattered the myth that the Earth is the center of the universe.
The "new learning," as it was called, led men to question authoritarian political systems based on the so-called "divine right" of kings. English political philosopher John Locke argued that all legitimate government rests on the "consent of the governed." In a famous essay on toleration, Locke wrote that religious faith is a matter of individual conscience, not state direction, and that where one faith is persecuted, no faith is secure.
Empowered by these ideas, settlers poured into the lands Columbus discovered. Asserting the right of all men to freedom, they established the United States of America and transformed a wilderness into the freest and most productive nation in history.
This Columbus Day, Americans are reaching out to men and women in many countries, who seek a better world -- one without poverty, intolerance, repression, and terror. In Iraq, a U.S.-led coalition is helping the Iraqi people to rebuild. As President George W. Bush said, "Iraq's progress toward self-determination and democracy brings hope to other oppressed peoples in the region and throughout the world. It is the rise of democracy that tyrants fear and terrorists seek to undermine."