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

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The more mainstream Eric Foner tries to strike a balance between the 'Columbus the hero' view and the popular 'Columbus the monster' school as advocated by Howard Zinn. He does this by focusing on the broader benefits to the inhabits of both the Old and the New Worlds by contact and the ensuing Columbian cultural exchange in new foods and trade goods. Both groups ultimately benefit culturally and economically. Without minimizing the brutality of the conflicts, he does provide some context, at least, for the Spanish determination to find gold (to fund ongoing military resistance against the powerful slave-based Ottoman Empire pressing them from the south and east). He also points out that the subsequent depopulation of the Arawak and other tribes was mainly due to lack of disease resistance and not to any intentional plan for depopulation (just as the European population had been decimated in the 14th c. by diseases from Asia).

Zinn, the son of working-class religious minority immigrants, was an advocate of radical politics who believed history should be used to rally the working class to undermine the oppressive capitalist ruling class of the United States. His famous "A People's History of the United States" sacrifices broader contextualization for a lively and gruesome selective retelling of Columbus and Las Casas' original accounts of the harsh treatment of the islanders by the Spanish. Columbus' harshness was extreme even by contemporary standards and he was sent back to Europe in chains to account for his actions. He never regained his previous standing. Students should certainly read Zinn's account as an antidote to the most saccharine accounts of Columbus the hero, and for a good recapitulation of Las Casas, Columbus, and Hans Koning (Zinn was not original here). However, if that is all they read, they will be left with a very narrow and limited view of the period. Once students understand that Zinn's work is as much a politically motivated selective history as his political opponents' more laudatory histories, they hopefully can begin to enjoy seeking out and mastering both sides of such important historical debates.

One irony of the current Columbus debate is that the English protestant founders of the 13 Anglo-American colonies never considered this foreign Catholic from southern Europe to have had anything to do with the founding of the British American colonies nor of the subsequent United States. On the contrary, they explicitly saw themselves as offsetting Spanish Catholic influence in the Americas. One can see their point as Columbus never even set foot in North America. It was only during the 19th c. with the popular stories of Washington Irving and 19th c. Italian Catholic immigration that Columbus was belatedly and somewhat tenuously linked to the history of the United States.

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Both historians, Eric Foner and Howard Zinn, analyze and provide critical thoughts on historical events and people. Howard Zinn is known for providing a strong anti-imperialist/anti-colonial analysis of history in which he deeply considers how indigenous people and people of color have been horribly affected by what most American history textbooks describe as "progress." Foner, however, may seem to provide a more balanced narrative, but in my mind, he takes a fence-sitter's approach in which he does not have to condone or condemn actions that left monumental scars on generations of peoples.

Foner's and Zinn's analyses on Christopher Columbus reflect their distinct analytical styles. Zinn acknowledges that Christopher Columbus was a colonizer who literally, and enthusiastically, reported that the people he encountered in the Caribbean Islands could be easily enslaved. Zinn does not excuse the genocidal actions of Columbus in the name of "progress." Foner, while acknowledging that Columbus's arrival brought great pain, enslavement, and death to indigenous peoples, mentions this pain within the context that this genocide is essentially justified in the name of "discovery" and "progress."

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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.'"

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