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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn
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What is a summary of A People's History of the United States, chapter 9? How does it describe the evolution of slavery?

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Zinn begins this chapter by discussing the government's protection of slavery, as cotton was such a profitable crop. He writes that only a rebellion could destroy the system of slavery before the Civil War. However, the process of Reconstruction that ended slavery was not truly revolutionary but was a safe form of emancipation that maintained the white power structure.

Zinn examines the brutality of slavery, in part caused by the owners' fear of revolts. He discusses the evolution of slavery as an outgrowth of the need for labor to cultivate the crops planted in the south. Slaves found ways to resist slavery that were not outright revolts, and owners used religion to tighten their grip on their slaves. However, slaves found a religion that offered forms of escape from slavery.

To end the system of slavery, freed blacks united with white abolitionists, who had their own forms of racism. The means of overthrowing slavery was not a revolt but a process controlled by white Northern business elites. The north was provoked to fight the Civil War not because of a hatred of slavery but because their business interests demanded free labor. Lincoln responded to the mood of these elites in finally turning against slavery, but this was not his path from the beginning of his presidency.

While Reconstruction, the period after the war, resulted in a time when African Americans could vote and hold office, former slaves never gained widespread access to land. Soon, however, white mob violence and the unwillingness of northern white people as well as white people in government to continue to enforce the newfound black freedoms resulted in a rolling back of those freedoms. Northern white elites saw the South as a land for new capitalist ventures, and black leaders such as Booker T. Washington did not push for black rights but for increased black economic power in the years after Reconstruction.

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Chapter 9 of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States examines slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction era. Zinn traces the limited successes of grassroots abolitionist movements in the late slavery era to the development of the Civil War to the brief progress experienced by former slaves to the violent, racist backlash against African Americans.

The text details the violence directed at slaves and the difficulty faced by abolitionists trying to free them, as well as the relatively limited slave revolts of the early 19th century. Most slaves did not engage in armed resistance, however, and instead attempted to flee and resisted "pre-politically," by affirming their humanity with religious expression, art, and music. Legal changes in the mid-19th century made escaping plantations and retaining freedom much more difficult for former slaves, despite abolitionists’ resistance. Additionally, the 1857 execution of John Brown and passage of the ban on mailing abolitionist literature in the south were major blows to the growing abolitionist movement.

The election of Lincoln in 1861 resulted in the secession of several states, which led to the first battles of the Civil War. Abolitionists used the war to increase their campaign for emancipation; while they differed ideologically with Lincoln, who aimed to deport ex-slaves to Africa after freeing them, the freeing of Union-state slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation was viewed as a minor success. 20% of slaves fled their plantations during the war; 200,000 total joined the Union army, and demands for equal pay were passed by Congress in 1864. The Civil War waged for four years, claiming 600,000 lives. The Union was restored in 1865.

After the war, new Constitutional amendments and racial equality laws allowed for ex-slaves to progress socially and politically. The years after the Civil War showed some progress, with the election of African Americans to state legislatures and introduction of racially mixed schools. However, backlash including the creation of the KKK, widespread murder and rape by white men in black communities, and church arsons began soon after. Coalitions between white business owners denied opportunity to black workers, popular writers used stereotypes of former slaves as violent and primitive to promote racism in society, little government reconstruction aid benefited the impoverished formerly-enslaved, and lynchings continued throughout the south. The brief progress enjoyed by African Americans shortly after the abolition of slavery quickly devolved into more violence and fear. The chapter ends with a brief examination of late-19th century black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, and their leadership in the fight for full racial equality.

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