How do Eric Foner and Howard Zinn differ in their views of Christopher Columbus?

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belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both Howard Zinn and Eric Foner are American Historians who have written extensively on unknown, unpopular, or forgotten aspects of American History. Their works are often thought of as revisionist or controversial for their interpretations and views.

In his book A People's History of the United States, Zinn describes Columbus's first contact with Native Americans as predatory; he cites Columbus's journal, pointing out that at the first Columbus considered the "subjugation" of the Natives with only 50 men. In Zinn's view, Columbus's attitude as the initial point of entry into the Americas led directly to years of slavery, rape, murder, and pillage, as well as the gold fever that struck subsequent expeditions. He points out the documentation of atrocity by Bartolome de las Casas, and how this part of history is often ignored in favor of the Progressive and Industrial archetype.

In a PBS interview, Eric Foner characterized Columbus as follows:

Columbus was a great discoverer, but ... the historical development set in motion or symbolized by Columbus's encounter with the New World produced both great good and great evil for different peoples in different parts of the world.

Foner's view is more lenient, but still critical; progress sometimes cannot be made without sacrifice and even atrocity, but we must remember and learn from the past instead of ignoring it.

Both men take a more critical view of Columbus and his actions, but Foner is somewhat more forgiving, while he called Zinn in his epitaph "the [kind of historian] 'that judges and condemns.'"