Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 971
In A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn covers a time span of over 500 years. Historians who focus on the actions of a few great individuals (followers of the "great man" school of history) might devote considerable time to specific people, but Zinn's focus is different. Because he is trying to give voice to "the people" who are often left out of histories of the United States, Zinn directs his attention to three types of characters:
- Well-established historical figures
- Representatives of the people
- Classes or groups of Americans
Well-Established Historical Figures
Zinn discusses well-known individuals at various points throughout the book. His purpose in doing so is to add complexity to traditional and overly simplified descriptions. The following are some of the key historical figures reworked, and how they change under Zinn's eye:
Christopher Columbus is portrayed as an intrepid explorer, which is in line with traditional depictions, but he is also revealed to be politically ambitious and racially insensitive.
James Otis receives more attention than usual in accounts of the pre-Revolutionary era because his rhetoric captures what it was like to be a laborer during the period.
Of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Paine receives the most attention, primarily because of his rhetorical skills and because he eventually opposes inclusion of the lower classes in the United States.
Andrew Jackson receives extended description because of his pivotal role in the Indian Removal Act.
Among contemporary leaders, Jimmy Carter receives an extended analysis that debunks his liberal leanings and shows how closely his policies align with the Reagan administration that replaced him. Bill Clinton is discussed at disproportional length for similar reasons: to show how liberal he was not.
Representatives of the People
Zinn describes representative individuals to provide context for the reader, but when he can, he quotes at length to allow these individuals to speak for themselves.
Nathaniel Bacon, leader of Bacon's Rebellion (1676), is presented as mixing period prejudice toward Native Americans with class anger.
Colonel Ethan Allan Hitchcock speaks for the common soldier in the Mexican-American War, articulating their resistance and moral concerns.
Despite his wealthy background, Thomas Dorr becomes a leader for the nineteenth-century suffrage movement, aiming to extend voting rights to the lower classes. He is shown as a kind of pragmatic, improvisational leader of a would-be class rebellion.
Countless voices from the early-twentieth-century labor movement are sketched or quoted, with Wobblies Jack White and Joe Hill the largest names among them. These populist leaders are defined by their honesty and their solidarity with other workers.
A similarly large number of figures are quickly sketched in the Vietnam antiwar movement and related sixties movements. Of these, Mary Moylan, a member of the Catonsville Nine, is quoted at the greatest length; her account reveals an organic growth to an antiwar stance.
Classes or Groups of Americans
In A People's History of the United States, Zinn often characterizes classes or groups. The following receive considerable attention throughout the work.
Zinn opens his study by sketching an account of what the Arawak culture Columbus encountered was like. He touches on Indians repeatedly, especially in the earlier chapters, and returns his focus to the continent's native peoples in Chapters 2, 7, and 19. Taken together, the resulting portrait is of a people who were not perfect when the Europeans arrived, and who were politically vulnerable due to intertribal tensions, but who were also superior to their conquerors in many ways (such as in their treatment of women). Zinn quotes extensively from Native spokespeople responding to crimes like the Indian Removal Act; their words are articulate and markedly ethical, giving clear insight into Native American character.
Zinn focuses on African-Americans periodically. He begins in the second chapter, where he sketches what African culture prior to the slave trade and what the middle passage aboard slaving ships were like. He follows this with an extended discussion in Chapter 9 of the various ways slaves resisted slavery. Zinn touches on African-American identity in numerous chapters, noting how this population responded to the various crises and wars the United States experienced. In Chapter 17, Zinn details the "black revolt of the 1950s and 1960s." Taken together, a portrait emerges of African-Americans never fully enslaved and never defeated as a people.
Zinn discusses how every major political and economic event affected American women. He focuses on women directly in Chapters 6 and 19, and somewhat less directly in chapters that analyze shared economic crises, such as Chapter 15, where Zinn discusses the Great Depression. Zinn writes about the oppression women suffered with great sympathy, and he presents protofeminist, feminist, and socialist/anarchist voices who spoke in favor of equality for women. The resulting portrait is one of tireless labor (both economic and biological) by a class fully aware of their mistreatment and innate rights.
The conditions of the working poor are treated in almost every chapter of A People's History of the United States. However, workers receive special attention in Chapters 2-5, 10-11, 13, and 15. Zinn turns a bright spotlight on workers in times of great suffering, and the actions they engage in there are marked by compassion and a seemingly innate heroism. Although they suffer from enthusiasms, are led astray by their leaders' rhetoric, and are often weary from the long hours they work, the American labor classes are shown as people of dignity, generosity, and a continually reviving faith in equality and possibility.
The Nation's Powerful Elite
Whether Zinn is describing the rulers of the American colonies, the actions of the nineteenth-century robber barons, or the machinations of Bush supporters to sway the 2000 election, none of America's leaders appears in a good light. Instead, they all seem nakedly committed to preserving and advancing their own interests, of only limited honesty, and fairly aware of the extent to which they distort reality to serve their own ends.