What are similarities and differences between chapter 1of A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn and part one of Paul Johnson's A History of the American People?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both works open with a discussion of the earliest of time periods in American roots and foundations.  Both works open with the formation of America as a central part of the thesis in each.  From this initial point of agreement, there is divergence.  Johnson spends the first part of his narrative extolling "A City on a Hill" that he sees as America.  The opening sentence sets the tone for the rest of the part and the work, in general:  

The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures. No other national story holds such tremendous lessons, for the American people themselves and for the rest of mankind. It now spans four centuries and, as we enter the new millennium, we need to retell it, for if we can learn these lessons and build upon them, the whole of humanity will benefit in the new age which is now opening. 

The "greatest" aspect along with the benefit of such  "tremendous lessons" establishes the Exceptionalist nature of Johnson's work.  It is a foray into the potential for greatness that nations hold if they model themselves off of American identity.  Johnson is able to bring this out through the idea of America being uniquely situated in history to teach such lessons to others.  Johnson briefly discusses Columbus as an "idealist" who wanted to "transform the world for the better."  In this beginning, Johnson makes the claim that America was etched out of a desire to make the world better in its greatness.

Zinn does not agree.  Zinn also opens with the founding of America. Yet, while Johnson is able to move past the Columbus landing and pivot into the Colonial time period, Zinn does not.  Zinn opens his work with the basic analysis that will represent his thesis.  In contrast to the idealism that Johnson posits, Zinn suggests that America was founded on the need to exploit others and construct relationships of power in which there were definite "winners" and "losers."  Zinn's examination of Columbus imprisoning the Native Americans and facilitating an exchange in which he benefited and they did not becomes part of the oppressive hierarchy that Zinn sees as intrinsic to America.  Highlighting a major difference between both is the larger implication of each perspective.  Johnson sees the history of America as one that delves into the greatness of the nation.  Zinn sees the history of America as one that has to be told from the point of view of the people, specifically the individuals that struggled to have their narratives authenticated in a power dynamic where definite winners and losers were present.

davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The respective approaches of Howard Zinn and Paul Johnson to early American history are almost diametrically opposite. Johnson, as a staunch conservative, takes the colonists’ claims at face value. What they are seeking to do, he maintains, is to remedy the evident failings of the British constitution, a constitution which despite its many imperfections is nonetheless founded on fundamental principles of liberty, limited government and the rule of law.

Instead of relying on the often confusing mixture of conventions, statutes and common law that make up the British constitution, the colonists are keen to codify the most important underlying principles and set them down in a written document. This document, the Constitution of the United States of America, establishes for the first time in human history a genuine government of laws, not men.

Zinn, however, approaching the issue from the left of the political spectrum, goes behind the American colonists’ rhetoric to examine not just what they believed but what they actually did—and how that related to their principles.

The thirteen colonies didn’t simply appear out of nowhere; they were established over time in a land where age-old cultures had long since developed and thrived. And many of these cultures, those of the various Native American tribes, found themselves under attack by white European colonists motivated by a toxic mixture of greed and religious zeal.

Zinn doesn’t believe that the Constitution is a sham; he accepts the value of the overriding principle of liberty that it embodies. However, he sees the high-flown political theory behind the document as not being anywhere near realized in practice. Many marginalized groups, such as African slaves, women, Native Americans and poor white farmers, do not appear to derive much benefit from the colonists’ noble experiment in founding a nation.

Essentially, Zinn sees the past as prologue. A nation founded on the exploitation and marginalization of certain groups of people can never truly move on, never truly progress, unless the emancipatory rhetoric deeply embedded in its founding document can be truly and fully realized for all.

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