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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn
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What are Howard Zinn's criticisms of traditional interpretations (like Samuel Eliot Morison's) of this period?

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Zinn claims that traditional interpretations of Columbus's encounters in the "New World" do not sufficiently grapple with the horrific consequences of these encounters, which were the result of deliberate policy. Writing specifically about Morison's book Christopher Columbus, Mariner , Zinn observes that Morison hardly lies about the past. In fact,...

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Zinn claims that traditional interpretations of Columbus's encounters in the "New World" do not sufficiently grapple with the horrific consequences of these encounters, which were the result of deliberate policy. Writing specifically about Morison's book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, Zinn observes that Morison hardly lies about the past. In fact, Morison uses the word "genocide" to describe the effects of Columbus's actions on the Arawaks and other Indigenous Americans. But this admission, Zinn argues, is "buried . . . [in] the telling of a grand romance." Overall, Morison characterizes Columbus as a "Christ-bearer," a brilliant and intrepid sailor whose exploits led to the creation of a new world.

Zinn's contention is that Morison ultimately argues that the genocide of the Native peoples was an unfortunate consequence of Columbus's actions. In doing so, Morison, to borrow a phrase from modern journalism, "buries the lede," glossing over the deaths of countless human beings. In doing so, Morison suggests that genocide "should not matter in our final judgments." In this telling, Columbus was a great man who did great (and horrible) things and whose actions led, however indirectly, to the creation of a great nation. In other words, as Zinn makes clear, emphasizing the greatness of Columbus and downplaying the brutality of their actions, "is . . . an ideological choice. It serves—unwittingly—to justify what was done."

For historians like Morison, Columbus represents progress, and the tragedy of American historiography for Zinn lies in its assumption that the actions of elites, many of which were malign in intent and consequence, were nonetheless necessary to promote progress. It is assumed that the United States is a force for good, a democratic "city on a hill," and that therefore its bad actions, by definition, must be either outweighed by the good, or justifiable in light of their contribution to progress. Columbus, and his treatment by Morison, for Zinn, is an example of this trend.

But he goes further, arguing that the very focus on Columbus as a hero is problematic. Columbus, nor any other of the historical figures that tended to grace twentieth century textbooks, is not representative of "the people." For this reason, Zinn writes, "I prefer to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees," and so on. Historians like Morison focused on men like Columbus. This was an ideological decision. Zinn's decision, as he makes clear, is no less ideological—he wants to tell a different American story.

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