Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States has been highly influential since its initial publication in 1980. It spawned adaptations for young readers (a two-volume adaptation by Rebecca Stefoff: A Young People's History of the United States) and The People Speak, a History Channel documentary based on Zinn's work. Zinn himself was until his death in 2010 a heroic figure to many, especially for this book and for his ongoing teaching and social activism, which were directly related.
A People's History of the United States was praised from the moment it appeared on shelves. A 1980 Library Journal review called it "brilliant and moving" and said it was well-designed to appeal to both historians and general readers. However, the volume was not without its criticisms. Some of these critiques align with party lines. Roger Kimball's review in the conservative National Review labeled Zinn a "Professor of contempt" and dismissed the work as the ultimate in "anti-American history," a patchwork of leftist clichés. Oscar Handlin's review for The American Scholar dismissed both Zinn's approach to history and the actual content of the work, citing a number of Zinn's claims as fallacious.
Some criticisms of the work carried more intellectual weight and addressed the quality of Zinn's reasoning directly. Bruce Kuklick's review of the book for The Nation suggested that A People's History of the United States was essentially a textbook for the left, and as such it shared many of the weaknesses of textbooks: overly simplified issues, lack of nuance, and a willingness on Zinn's part to repeat easy answers.
In the end, A People's History of the United States continues to be read and to influence thousands of readers because it was groundbreaking in many ways. It told stories left out of mainstream history books, and it spoke for the voiceless. It rejected the false objectivity that colors too many textbooks, and it openly declared its ethical and political allegiances. If it was clumsy at times, its sweeping energy cleared the ground for later generations of scholars to explore these issues in more detail.
Throughout A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn blends critical approaches. The book's twenty-five chapters move from the European discovery of North America through the year 2000, evoking American history in a roughly chronological sequence. However, each chapter also has a topical focus, which allows Zinn to trace distinct but intersecting lines of historical influence. Zinn uses these intersections of time and topic as a combination of springboard and platform: he inserts extended meditations on key themes where they grow logically from the narrative of the people's history. For example, Zinn's first chapter discusses the general relationship between Europeans and Native Americans, but Zinn also analyzes larger-than-life historical figures—Christopher Columbus in this case—and their role in American history.
Almost every chapter performs a set of interwoven functions central to Zinn's project:
- First, he revisits the major events of American history.
- Second, he retells them, emphasizing the role of the people by including details often left out of or minimized in mainstream histories.
- Third, he makes an interpretative claim about how the powerful elite worked to solidify or maintain their control.
Chapter 1: Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress
Chapter 1 begins Zinn's process of shifting history's focus from that of the European conquerors and resulting power elites to that of the people. The chapter opens from the perspective of the Arawak Indians who met Columbus. He describes them and their similarities to other indigenous people of the continent, and he then puts Columbus's explorations into historical, political, and economic context. Zinn emphasizes the relative peacefulness of the natives (from Columbus's own account) and the cruelty Europeans exercise in their quest for gold. Next, he documents how the Indians' numbers dwindled away due to enslavement, violence, and disease.
This in turn leads to the introduction of Zinn's central premise, a meditation on the nature of history and what it means to leave key details (such as Columbus's character and the Indians' suffering) out of a historical narrative. If "history is the memory of states," as Zinn quotes Henry Kissinger, then Zinn's ultimate goal is to free that past by telling the people's story. As an essential part of this untold history, Zinn reviews how almost all European settlers in North America treated Native Americans in the same way, committing "genocide" to claim what they saw as their destiny. Past historians had excused slaughter as the necessary price for human progress. Zinn challenges that assumption and sees re-evaluating those events and who is sacrificed as essential for real progress.
Chapter 2: Drawing the Color Line
Chapter 2 opens in 1619, with the arrival of a slave ship in North America. Zinn sketches the colonists' need for labor, which was the immediate engine driving their willingness to hold slaves, and the larger European cultural attitudes that made slavery tenable. He compares slavery in Europe and Africa, and he touches on the nature of African civilization. Zinn moves back and forth through time by documenting the massive importation of slaves ("10 to 15 million" imported by 1800) and analyzing what this enslavement meant. Zinn addresses the marked racial bias in the seventeenth century (evidenced by laws against black/white fraternization) and comments on the many ways blacks resisted slavery: everything from dodging work to outright rebellion. Finally, Zinn documents how period power elites assembled "an intricate and powerful system of control" that kept resistant slaves in their place and prevented poor white laborers from rebelling with them.
Chapter 3: Persons of Mean and Vile Condition
Chapter 3 opens with a summary of Bacon's Rebellion of 1676. Zinn sketches the complex economic and political forces driving this armed uprising by whites from the frontier. The frontiersmen were caught between the landed classes in the east of Virginia (who received substantial land grants) and the Indians to the west. A harsh summer in 1676 ruined crops, leaving the majority of the population hungry and angry. The rebel Nathaniel Bacon led forces who were not happy about their economic situation but who were not happy about open warfare either. Twenty-three rebels were eventually hanged, an act anchoring what Zinn calls "a complex chain of oppression in Virginia": England was at the top, then the Virginia elite, then the frontiersmen, and finally the Indians at the bottom. The result was that most people supported the rebellion and a "leveling" of the wealth in the colony.
The intense economic imbalance in Virginia was representative of a similar situation back in Europe. England and other countries displaced the poor from their land, then punished them for being idle, which eventually drove them to the colonies. Settlers came with hopes of better conditions in America, but most were disappointed: they came as servants, and they remained as working poor in colonies that quickly developed strict class divisions. As a result, the decades prior to the American Revolution saw a growing underclass in the colonies, as well as numerous strikes and protest by the poor. This unhappiness was intensified by the foreign wars England fought, which made merchants rich but further oppressed the poor. To prevent a unified uprising, the power elites thus created even more laws dividing blacks from whites.
Chapter 4: Tyranny Is Tyranny
Chapter 4 addresses the American Revolution. Casting light on the concentration of wealth in the decades prior to the revolution, Zinn focuses first on the power struggle between the colonial elites and England. Zinn discusses rebellions of colonial poor against the landowning rich, and he analyzes the Regulator movement against taxation. Once violence broke out in the 1770s, many of the revolutionary leaders actually struck a moderate tone, while others found ways to resolve colonial class conflicts by creating a united front against England.
Chapter 5: A Kind of Revolution
Chapter 5 continues to discuss the American Revolution, putting military actions in social and cultural context. On one hand, forming a militia quickly was possible because so many colonists were armed. On the other hand, the new nation soon started forcing sailors to join the war, which had been one of the complaints against the British. Period observers noted that military leaders such as George Washington reinforced strict class hierarchies, and the Continental Congress that came together to write the new nation's laws was overwhelming made up of the rich, leaving the same men in power as had been in charge in the colonies. Once the revolution was won, Americans assumed they could take Indian lands to the west. Many discharged soldiers were not paid, or were paid in devalued currency, and the result was riots.
Chapter 6: The Intimately Oppressed
Chapter 6 shifts focus to those left out of the major political maneuvering of the revolutionary period: women and blacks. Zinn contrasts the legal and social inequality of colonial and early American Caucasian women to the status women held in Indian tribes, arguing that such inequality is built into an economic system based on private property. Native American women may not have been full equals, but they were treated respectfully, while many European girls came over as servants and remained ill-treated and poor throughout their lives. Black women had it worse: they worked at hard labor and were often sexually abused. Women, such as Anne Hutchinson, who spoke out publicly were punished. During the revolutionary period, the rhetoric of equality sparked women's desire for the same, but the legal system defined them as inferior. During the early nineteenth century, the "cult of true womanhood" developed, which justified keeping women at home and in a domestic position. The same period saw the emergence of women public speakers, like the Grimke sisters, who spoke against slavery. Those activists and the issues they championed became the impetus for the first feminist movements.
Chapter 7: As Long As the Grass Grows or Water Runs
Chapter 7 opens with an analogy: women were the most "interior" group oppressed by the new nation, while Indians were the most "exterior" because they were aliens in their own lands. Zinn then describes the Euro-American treatment of Native Americans, including the many armed conflicts, the broken treaties, and the forced displacements, one of which became known as the Trail of Tears. Zinn describes the Native American response to government mistreatment, which he then contrasts with the white justification of that treatment.
Chapter 8: We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God
Chapter 8 focuses on the Mexican-American War. Zinn argues that while some histories have portrayed the war as a popular cause, the reality was quite different. President James Polk pushed an expansionist agenda to justify his conquest of Mexico, and the newspapers supported his actions, misrepresenting both the conflict and popular response to it. The true response of citizens, Zinn posits, can be seen in the demonstrations against the war, while the response of the military can be seen in the number of desertions.
Chapter 9: Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom
Chapter 9 examines the socio-economic structures supporting and justifying slavery. Zinn argues that the U.S. government supported slavery because it was practical (i.e., profitable), and when freedom came, it came via organized war rather than widespread rebellion for similar reasons of practicality. If slaves had been allowed to rebel, Zinn argues, the rebellion might have spread to a generalized class movement, thereby threatening the powerful elite. Chapter 9 also documents the uneven path America took toward emancipation, freedom, and partial racial equality: the failure to pay black soldiers equally, the exodus of freed blacks from southern states, the highly racist attitudes period whites held toward blacks, and more.
Chapter 10: The Other Civil War
Chapter 10 addresses a range of class and labor-related struggles. Zinn starts with the...
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