What is Zinn's main argument in chapter 1 of A People's History of the United States?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Chapter 1, Zinn details the savagery and brutality that Columbus demonstrated to the indigenous people.  It is from this point where Zinn's main argument emerges.  Zinn wants to liberate the telling of history as the narrative of "states" and transform it to the narrative of "the people."  In Zinn's mind, traditional modes of narrating history have lost this emphasis.  Zinn's primary argument that if historical scholarship focuses on the historical consciousness of those who are normally excluded from the traditional narratives, a wider and more inclusive understanding of history emerges.  

Zinn's argument in chapter 1 is that there must be a more inclusive understanding of history in the hopes of gaining more accuracy and a greater sense of democracy.  For Zinn, this process of questioning and reevaluation is essential to what the historical dialectic should be:

Even allowing for the imperfection of myths, it is enough to make us question, for that time and ours, the excuse of progress in the annihilation of races, and the telling of history from the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization.

This becomes one of the most important parts of Zinn's argument in chapter 1, as it seeks to "question" and better value what defines "progress."

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jameadows | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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Zinn's main argument in the first chapter of his book is that the way in which historians have told the story of Columbus's expedition to the New World omits vital parts of the record. While Columbus and his crew instigated a policy of enslaving and slaughtering the Arawaks they encountered, most historians have omitted this part of Columbus's journey.

Cartographers distort reality for technical reasons, Zinn says, but "The historian's distortion is more than technical, it is ideological." In other words, when historians omit parts of the historical record, including the accounts of the victims, their decisions have an ideological effect. Zinn writes that such distortions amount to "easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress." In other words, historians gloss over atrocities such as Columbus's decision to enslave the Arawaks in his pursuit of riches, but the decision to omit that part of the historical record seems to justify Columbus's cruelties as part of the rightful progression of western society towards "advancement." Zinn questions whether this type of genocide is truly advancement and says that historians are making an ideological decision by omitting Columbus's role in the genocide of Native Americans. 

 

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