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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

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Discussion Topic

Key ideas and themes in various chapters of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States."

Summary:

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States presents key ideas and themes such as the struggles of marginalized groups, the impact of economic exploitation, and the resistance against oppression. Each chapter focuses on different historical events and movements, highlighting perspectives often omitted from traditional narratives, emphasizing the importance of social justice and grassroots activism in shaping American history.

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What are Howard Zinn's main ideas in chapters 4 and 5 of A People's History of the United States?

In chapters 4 and 5 of A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn describes how the American Revolutionary War was essentially a struggle for power between two political elite groups. The colonial elite and the British monarchy engaged in a war over control of the American colonies. However, the American revolutionary war leaders used the anger and discontent of the lower classes of the colonies to fuel the fight against the British crown. The political elite in the American colonies used political rhetoric of a people's war to engage the dissatisfied lower classes in the colonies to fight against the British. However, as the lower classes, and particularly black folks enslaved in the colonies soon found, the war was simply a transfer of power and the horrific oppressions that existed under the colonies continued to exist once America became an independent nation.

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What are Howard Zinn's main ideas in chapters 4 and 5 of A People's History of the United States?

In Howard Zinn's recount of American history, A People's History of the United State, Chapters 4 and 5 are dedicated to the American Revolution. Zinn characterizes the revolution as a struggle of the colonial elite with the King of England over the issue of taxation. Zinn's main idea in Chapter 4 is that a large proportion of the colonial population, especially the lower classes, were unhappy with the socio-economic conditions in the colonies. This discontent manifested itself with a number of rebellions of the poor against the landowning Colonial elite. The war for independence against England tended to quell the social unrest, which may have been the point of colonial aggression against England.

In Chapter 5, Zinn continues to discuss the American Revolution. He frames the war in terms of a social and cultural context. The main idea of the chapter is that after declaring a war on a tyrannical king, the end result was a tyrannical congress. The Continental Congress designed a government system that endorsed the unfair class structure that had existed while the people were governed by colonial governors. Some of the complaints that were levied at King George were actions that the new government practiced. In the end, the elites were victorious at the expense of the underclasses.

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What are key ideas in chapter 6 of A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn?

In chapter 6 of this book, titled "The Intimately Oppressed," the author examines the status of women in early America. He explains how and why their status was inferior.

Women could not vote. (This would not be changed until the early twentieth century.) Women could not own property. Women who worked outside the home received only a fraction of the wages paid to a man for the same work. Women were barred from working as lawyers, doctors, or ministers. They did not attend college. In fact, it would have been difficult for most of them to attend college because of their high illiteracy rate. In these ways, women were subordinated to men.

Zinn points out that women enjoyed a higher status in other societies, which were typically "conquered" by Europeans. For example, many Indian tribes treated women much more equally.

Exploitation of women began in America from its inception. For instance, indentured servants were typically female, and their treatment was terrible. Enslaved black women received the most egregious treatment. Even women who were not servants or slaves faced tremendous hardships.

Women who had children out of wedlock were severely punished. The fathers of such children, however, were not penalized at all.

Occasionally, a strong woman emerged to challenge the status of women in colonial America. One such woman was Anne Hutchinson. She was put on trial and banished for challenging men's monopoly of power in the church and in society.

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What are key ideas in chapter 6 of A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn?

Chapter Six of A People's History is entitled "The Intimately Oppressed." Zinn's focus in this chapter is on the systemic sexism that was fundamental to American society in the antebellum period. He claims that it is possible, reading "standard histories," to overlook "half the population of the country," meaning that these histories have focused primarily on men (102). He discusses the role of women in Anglo-American society, examining the ideological origins of women's roles by the nineteenth century. He discusses the so-called "cult of true womanhood" that emerged in the post-Revolutionary era. This ideology emphasized the piety, sexual purity, and submission expected of girls and women. He is especially interested in the emergence of feminist, or proto-feminist ideas that accompanied the rise of the abolition movement. The chapter finishes with quotes from two leading female activists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose speech to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 demanded the right to vote for women, and Sojourner Truth, whose famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, in Zinn's words, "joined the indignation of her race to the indignation of her sex" (122). The nineteenth century, though dominated by the "cult of true womanhood," also witnessed women's participation in a variety of reform movements. So it became a sort of touchstone for the movement for women's equality.

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What are the major themes in Chapter 9 of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States?

The title of chapter 9 of A People's History is "Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom," and its subject is antebellum slavery and its decline during the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Several themes emerge in this chapter.

One major theme is slave resistance, as the first part of the chapter title suggests. Enslaved people never accepted enslavement, and even if they did not rise up in armed rebellion, they ran away, slowed down work, broke tools, and did other things to resist their enslavement. Even the culture that arose on plantations was oppositional in nature, a "complex mixture of adaptation and rebellion," as Zinn puts it. Zinn also emphasizes the lives of those people who advocated open armed rebellion, including David Walker.

Another theme is emancipation, which took place in terms that avoided an open rebellion of the enslaved, which seemed possible in the midst of the Civil War. Emancipation proved an incomplete proposition, and one entered into hesitantly and gradually by the Lincoln administration.

Still another theme is freedom, which is quite different from emancipation. In the wake of the Civil War, under Reconstruction, African Americans experienced unprecedented freedoms, as thousands received an education, voted, held public office, and started their own businesses. But as Zinn argues has been the case throughout American history, the freedom asserted by these people resulted in a violent backlash as southern whites organized into groups like the Ku Klux Klan to regain control of Southern society. This continual contest between the ruling class and ordinary people is the most consistent running theme through Zinn's work.

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What are the major themes in Chapter 9 of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States?

Chapter 9 of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is titled "Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom" because it is devoted to the theme of slavery in the United States, both before and after the Civil War.

Zinn takes a critical view of the U.S. government's role in institutionalizing slavery, even though the government was also instrumental in abolishing slavery. He argues that the government allowed slavery because it was practical and profitable; thus, it helped the elite to maintain their power. He argues that the U.S. government abolished slavery by a managed war--rather than empowering the slaves to rebel themselves--because it was more practical and prevented the elite from having their power threatened. Following emancipation, African Americans were not truly free; elites in both Northern and Southern states continued to use their power to subjugate the African Americans.

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What are key points and analysis of chapter 14 in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States?

"War is the health of the state" is the title of chapter 14 in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. The chapter title was penned by Randolph Bourne (1886–1918), an American author. Its main idea is that nations and their wealthy rulers benefit from warfare.

Zinn writes a lot about the horrific carnage of World War I (1914–1918) in this chapter. Focusing on the Anglo-French struggle against Germany, Zinn condemns the senseless loss of millions. The extent of the slaughter was not publicized by the governments of the warring nations. In fact, Zinn criticizes both politicians and the generals involved in this, especially Douglas Haig. Although the governments tried to ignore the truth, Zinn points out that the mutiny of the French army could not be kept secret.

Zinn criticizes President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson chose sides early in the war by trading with the British and French. Wilson also authorized loans to London, giving America a stake in the war's outcome. Zinn defends the Germans by pointing out their right to sink the Lusitania, which was laden with munitions.

When the United States officially entered the war in 1917, Zinn argues, there was little patriotic fervor in America. The anti-war Socialists made electoral gains. The government used a draft to enlist reluctant men. Propaganda was disseminated by George Creel, a former journalist. The Espionage Act (1917) was used to crush dissenting voices.

In this chapter—and throughout his book—Zinn emphasizes the importance of social classes and the struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed.

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What are the key themes in Chapters 17 and 18 of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States"?

One of the most important themes in Chapters 17 and 18 in A People's History of the United States is that individual action can have profound effects on social and political policy.

In chapter 17, Zinn focuses on the "black revolt of the 1950s and 1960s."  He is very direct in how he opens the chapter.  Zinn details how specific writers and thinkers viewed the racial divide that defined America.  The impressions of Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes were matched with the organizing efforts of Angelo Herndon and Hosea Hudson.  In each of these perceptions, Zinn makes clear that in order for sweeping social and political change to take place, individual action was needed.  Zinn views the Civil Rights struggle in terms of action vs. inaction.  Zinn's narrative focuses on inaction of government and those in the position of power against those at the bottom rung of society who seek to create change.  He details this theme with examples of student sit- ins and protests, "Freedom Riders," and stories of how individual action was critical to change.  Zinn does not suggest that legal equality in the form of Brown vs. Board of Education or efforts from the Kennedy Administration created lasting change.  Rather, he suggests that change was created through individuals displaying power from the bottom up in the form of the Civil Rights Movement.

This theme of individual action bringing about massive change is continued in Chapter 18.  He emphasizes this in his opening to the chapter on the Vietnam War:

From 1964 to 1972, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world made a maximum military effort, with everything short of atomic bombs, to defeat a nationalist revolutionary movement in a tiny, peasant country-and failed. When the United States fought in Vietnam, it was organized modern technology versus organized human beings, and the human beings won.

When Zinn writes "the human beings won," it is a reminder of how individual action is critical to creating change.  In Chapter 18, Zinn makes the argument that the geopolitical control was underlying American action in Vietnam.  He does this by citing memorandum that affirmed the importance of the "domino theory," and through detailing how American interests were protected through intervention in Vietnam.  Yet, Zinn also discusses how American opposition to the war arose through individual action. Journalists such as Seymour Hersh in reporting about the My Lai massacre sought to increase public outrage towards the war.  Zinn also talks about how Vietnamese citizens saw the battle as one of national identity.  They did not see it as a geopolitical struggle against Communism.  Rather, these individuals saw their own nation's freedom threatened with American action in Vietnam.  In these examples, Zinn affirms the theme of individual action creating lasting change because American victory in the region became "impossible."

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