How do Paul Johnson's and Howard Zinn's views differ in why the American colonists had a revolution?

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mrkirschner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Probably the only thing about the American Revolution that Howard Zinn and Paul Johnson could agree on is that the thirteen colonies won the war.  These two historians are from opposite ends of the political spectrum and they each bring a bias to their re-evaluations of American history.

Howard Zinn, from the left of the political spectrum, views the American Revolution as a group of elitists from the colonies that were able to manipulate the masses into joining up arms against Britain.  Zinn cites numerous examples of the populace being unmotivated to trade one oppressor for another and how the elites would use various methods to get them back in line.  Minor economic incentives, threats of imprisonment, and capital punishments were all methods used by the elite to keep the commoners in tune to the goal of independence from England. According to Zinn, the American Revolution was motivated by wealth and greed.

Paul Johnson, a conservative writer, has a more patriotic view of the Revolution.  Johnson believes that the Revolution was ''specifically created by and for ordinary men and women."  Johnson believes that religion and the Great Awakening were the driving forces behind the Revolution.  Johnson also cites the colonists love of the "rule of law" as an important factor.  Johnson believes that the colonists viewed the courtroom as the secular church.

Obviously, as both writers continue their journey from the Revolution to the present day, they rarely find stories that they can agree on.

mkoren eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Paul Johnson and Howard Zinn have very different views of the American Revolution. Paul Johnson is a conservative historian, while Howard Zinn is much more liberal in his thinking. Paul Johnson believes the American Revolution occurred because there was a remarkable group of men in the colonies. He believes that a revolution cannot succeed unless there is stellar leadership. These leaders believed strongly in the rule of law and were determined to act when it was not being followed. He also believed that religion played a role in the American Revolution. Many people believed they were carrying out the will of God by fighting in the American Revolution.

Howard Zinn believes that the American Revolution was really a revolution of the elite people living in the colonies as well as a response to the numerous British policies that were very harmful to the colonists. The American Revolution allowed the elites in the colonies to eventually gain control over the colonies, so they could run the colonies. The elites were able to convince regular people that their views were right, allowing ordinary people to support the American Revolution.

These men had very different views of the American Revolution.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Paul Johnson's view, the American religious freedom and fervor that developed out of the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s led to the American Revolution. The forms of Protestantism that developed in the movement allowed a personal connection of adherence with God and weakened the power of the established clergy. New religions such as Methodism and Baptism took root in the American colonies, and people could choose a more personal experience of religion. People's sense of political liberty was affected by their sense of religious freedom.

Zinn, on the other hand, believes that the elite class of colonists, including merchants and bondholders, co-opted working-class colonists into the Revolution to prevent mob rule. In his view, the Revolution was essentially conservative, and the Revolution was intended to preserve the elite's property by coercing the non-elite colonists to go along with them.

piratejaime | Student

Paul Johnson and Howard Zinn have fundamentally different views on why and how the events leading up to the American Revolution took place.

Paul Johnson presents a more conservative and traditional patriotic view of the colonists. He argues that the American Revolution came to fruition because the colonists were driven to protect their religious freedom and to retaliate when they felt the laws they were supposed to be governed by were being broken. In Johnson's view, the colonists sought an escape from the unlawful persecution of England in order to create a more idealized society with strong and fair rulers who would protect them from unfair laws and religious persecution. In his view, this was orchestrated by the common man for the common man. 

Howard Zinn, however, presents the same events from a more liberal perspective. Zinn argues that instead of a group of common men looking to attain fair rule and religious freedom, the key players in the American Revolution were actually a group of elites motivated by greed and power to separate from England. In separating from England, this elite class was able to gain power over the colonies and attain great wealth at the expense of the common man. When common men were reluctant to follow the elites in their plans to revolt, this group of powerful elites used various degrees of incentives and punishments to convince the common men to go along with their plans. In Zinn's view, the American Revolution was an exchange of one group of oppressors (the English) for another (the colonial elites).