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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn
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According to A People's History of the United States, did the Civil War effectively end the growing division between capital and labor?

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Howard Zinn’s most famous work, A People's History of the United States, is consistent with the historian’s long-held perspective as to whether the American Civil War ended the division between capital and labor. The short response is definitely not. The entire book purports to be a more socialist...

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Howard Zinn’s most famous work, A People's History of the United States, is consistent with the historian’s long-held perspective as to whether the American Civil War ended the division between capital and labor. The short response is definitely not. The entire book purports to be a more socialist rendition of American history that differs substantially from the traditional perspectives favored by historians and long accepted by the American public.

The answer to the question posed is dealt with primarily in chapter 10, entitled “The Other Civil War.” Much of the chapter is devoted to the historical happenings leading up to the post-war period. Citing Morton Horwitz and The Transformation of American Law, Zinn states:

“In the thirty years leading up to the Civil War, the law was increasingly interpreted in the courts to suit the capitalist development of the country.”

He argues that socialism is a healthy, viable solution to the economic disparity between the rich and poor, which was intentionally hidden from the populace during the post-war years.

Zinn asserts that rich politicians and wealthy people corrupted the American government. They suppressed the opinions of the poor and disenfranchised, women, former slaves, Native Americans, and other groups that attempted to change the political climate. He provides numerous examples of the schism between capital and labor. For example, he states,

“That contract law was intended to discriminate against working people and for business is shown by Horwitz in the following example of the early nineteenth century: the courts said that if a worker signed a contract to work for a year, and left before the year was up, he was not entitled to any wages, even for the time he had worked. But the courts at the same time said that if a building business broke a contract, it was entitled to be paid for whatever had been done up to that point.”

In his view, the double-standard perpetuated the separation between the captains of industry and the labor forces long after the Civil War ended. Zinn states:

“It was a time when the law did not even pretend to protect working people—as it would in the next century.”

Citing Horwitz once again, Zinn writes with emphasis:

“By the middle of the nineteenth century the legal system had been reshaped to the advantage of men of commerce and industry at the expense of farmers, workers, consumers, and other less powerful groups within the society. ... it actively promoted a legal redistribution of wealth against the weakest groups in the society.”

Zinn favored socialism as the solution. He points out that by 1877, black people in America had neither sufficient unity nor enough capability and influence “to defeat the combination of private capital and government power.”

His cynical and controversial positions, including praising communism as a political ideology more inclined to help the poor and downtrodden than American capitalism, expose Zinn’s ideology and his belief that the growing division between capital and labor did not effectively end with the Civil War.

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A People’s History of the United States (1980) is Howard Zinn's most important contribution to historical literature, and "The Other Civil War" is the title of its tenth chapter. In it, Zinn describes the perpetual class conflict that occurred in the decades before and after the Civil War. The Civil War (1861–1865), in his view, did not fundamentally alter the relationship between the rich and those they suppressed. He admits that many people in both the North and South rallied to their respective causes, but the depth of their patriotism did not match that of their economic grievances. The Civil War, one of the most monumental events in American history, could not obscure America's mammoth inequality.

Traditional history books describe the decades before the Civil War very differently from A People's History. Conventional historians laud America's progress and accomplishments. They also praise the supposed inclusiveness of Jacksonian democracy. Zinn, on the other hand, describes a land with a great deal of discontent. President Andrew Jackson might have known how to gain popular support, but both political parties served the titans of industry. Zinn describes the Anti-Renter movement as an attempt to end a kind of feudalism in New York—an event ignored by typical history textbooks.

The well-to-do in both the North and the South easily evaded military service. The unfairness of the North's draft helped fuel the violent anti-draft riots in New York in 1863. Union troops were called in to suppress it; troops were also used to quell labor strikes in the North. In the South, many poor soldiers complained bitterly about fighting a war for well-heeled slave owners.

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The Civil War did not end the division, Howard Zinn argues. Both the end of the armed conflict and the expansion of business and industry contributed to widening the gap.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth-century, Zinn notes in chapter 10, the legal bases of class conflict and exploitation were increasingly disguised by the appearance of fairness and neutrality. Because the wealthy business and industry owners controlled the political system, they could influence the passage of legislation that favored their interests. During the crisis of the Civil War, military and political unity suppressed class-consciousness. Workers rarely dared to strike. After the war ended, massive numbers of soldiers returned home, unable to find work. For those who did have work, conditions were often perilous. The formation of unions and numerous large strikes seemed to threaten the owners’ control. By 1873, the entire US was sunk into a depression.

Immigration laws were adjusted to allow more foreign workers to enter, and the idea they were given American workers’ jobs added to the strife. Socialists, in particular, pointed to the inequalities in the laws. Zinn provides a quote from an 1876 Workingmen’s party’s “Declaration of Independence”:

The present system has enabled capitalists to make laws in their own interests to the injury and oppression of the workers.

Strikes by railroad workers—perhaps numbering 100,000—stopped about half the rail lines nationwide, and shook the US more than any other labor conflict. There were countless violent confrontations between National Guard troops and local police versus strikers, sometimes devolving into rioting mobs. The outcome included increased union formation and most likely hardened the lines between capital and labor.

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Zinn's answer to this question, which is addressed in Chapters 10 and 11 of A People's History, is a resounding "no." In fact, Zinn argues that the Civil War may have even exacerbated class divisions, because it enabled Northern politicians to pass a number of pro-industry (and, in Zinn's view, anti-labor) measures without the interference of the South, which had traditionally blocked such legislation:

Under the deafening noise of the war, Congress was passing and Lincoln was signing into law a whole series of acts to give business interests what they wanted, and what the agrarian South had blocked before secession.

These measures included the protectionist Morrill Tariff, the Homestead Act (which Zinn interprets as being passed for the benefit of land speculators) and a raft of anti-labor laws passed at the federal and the state level. More generally, the period after the Civil War saw unprecedented technological developments in industry that had negative effects for labor. The period after the Civil War, and especially after the Panic of 1873 (itself in part a product of postwar economic contraction) witnessed the rise of class conflict unlike any seen in the United States before. Zinn also addresses (though not as completely) the rise of exploitative labor systems such as sharecropping in the postwar South. So he is clear that the Civil War did not end class division in the United States.

Source: Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 206-246.

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