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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

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What are the differences between Howard Zinn and Larry Schweikart's beliefs and values?

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Howard Zinn and Larry Schweikart espouse totally opposite views of American history. These interpretations corresponded with, and were informed by, their political beliefs. Howard Zinn was a lifelong leftist and critic of American society, while Schweikart is an arch-conservative.

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To identify the differences between the two historians, Howard Zinn and Larry Schweikart, consider the differences between A People’s History of the United States, written by Zinn, and A Patriot’s History of the United States, which Schweikart wrote with another history professor, Michael Allen. The titles should provide clues to the competing values, beliefs, and personal assumptions of the two men in question.

Zinn’s title suggests that a history by the people has not yet been thoroughly told. It indicates that a complete record of the United States from the standpoint of the common, ordinary person will contain values and beliefs that contrast with histories that center the powerful.

Schweikart’s title suggests that a history by patriots needs to be documented. His title assumes that histories of the United States tend to be written by people who aren’t sufficiently loyal to America. It indicates that a patriot will uncover values and beliefs that supposedly non-patriots will miss out on. Indeed, in their introduction, Schweikart and Allen allege that “many academics miss the real history of America.”

Interestingly enough, Zinn seems to feel that people have missed the “real history of America,” although Zinn prefers to use different terms. Quoting the famous American political figure Henry Kissinger, Zinn communicates his belief that history, too often, is told through “the memory of the states. ”However, one should not mistake Zinn's critique of states and their “executioners” as a way for him to “romanticize” their victims or the everyday person.

Schweikart is not interested in absolutely romanticizing the United States. Although Schweikart has a much different view of powerful historical figures, he and Allen acknowledge that the history of the United States comes with “flaws” and “shortcomings.” Blemishes aside, Schweikart ultimately holds the United States in high esteem. He and Allen refer to its past as a “bright and shining light.” No such praise exists in Zinn’s book.

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Howard Zinn and Larry Schweikart each approach the study and writing of American history from completely different angles. Zinn, very much on the left of the political spectrum, sees the traditional writing of American history as being biased toward the wealthy and the powerful.

On Zinn's reading, the story of America as conventionally told is the story of social, racial, and political elites, which systematically excludes the voices of oppressed and marginalized groups such as women, the working class, and people of color. In writing A People's History of the United States, Zinn seeks to remedy this deficiency.

At the exact opposite end of the political spectrum, we have Larry Schweikart, an ultra-conservative historian who, in an extensive body of work, has sought to combat what he sees as the numerous falsehoods and distortions of leftist historians such as Zinn.

In his A Patriot's History of the United States, coauthored with Michael Allen, Schweikart adopts a completely different approach to American history from that of Zinn. Rejecting Zinn's economic determinism, Schweikart sees the story of America as being shaped by the pursuit of virtue and an exalted sense of America's place within the world.

Far from the history of America being primarily determined by the pursuit of economic self-interest, Schweikart argues that fidelity to certain values and principles has been the main driving force. It is largely because of these values and principles, grounded in the pursuit of virtue, that, according to Schweikart, the United States has been, and continues to be, a major force for good in the world.

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Howard Zinn is best known for A People's History of the United States, first published in 1980. As the title of the book suggests, Zinn's position is either socialist or social democratic, focused on working people rather than the ruling elite.

Zinn believes that the aspirations and achievements of the working class have been neglected by historians, who have concentrated instead on a small group of the wealthy and powerful. This small group has operated as an oligarchy and used both sides of the ostensible political divide to achieve its objectives while exploiting ordinary Americans. Zinn's values are illustrated by the attention he gives to popular movements and the development of organized labor. He is interested in class conflict and always sympathetic to the interests of the working class, marginalized groups in general.

While Howard Zinn saw himself as writing against the prevailing current of historical narratives, Larry Schweikart, writing twenty-four years later in A Patriot's History of the United States, held the same view, though his narrative ran counter to Zinn's and was written partly as a corrective to it.

Schweikart is a conservative and makes several key assumptions that lead him to disagree with Zinn's views. Most importantly, Schweikart believes that the ruling elite have generally acted in concert with the working class for the interests of the whole country, rather than exploiting working people. He also views America as a force for good in the world that has helped to spread the values of freedom and democracy to other countries. However, he is concerned that, in the twenty-first century, America is losing confidence as a society and abandoning the values on which the country was founded.

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Howard Zinn, best-known for A People's History of the United States, and Larry Schweikart, author of books including A Patriot's History of the United States, come from very different backgrounds, and have very different perspectives on American history. Schweikart, in short, is a very conservative writer, a retired professor from Dayton University in Ohio. The titles of some of his other works, including 48 Liberal Lies About America and a series titled The Politically Incorrect Guide to various historical topics reveal his perspective. Essentially, he contends that professional academic historians have seized control of the narrative of American history, tilting it toward the left by emphasizing such evils as slavery, the expropriation of Native lands, and other things. He dismisses most modern scholarship in exactly the terms suggested by his book title, as "liberal lies." Schweikart is also interested in counteracting the influence of Howard Zinn's bestselling People's History. Zinn, who died in 2010, was the ideological opposite of Schweikart, the most public face of exactly the kind of scholar the conservative deplored. Zinn was from Brooklyn, New York, and served on a bomber in World War II. After the war, he began his academic career and was an active participant in the civil rights movement, an antiwar activist, and a lifelong labor organizer. His main work, A People's History of the United States, stresses ever-present oppression in American history, and shows how various oppressed peoples have struggled against it. In short, his vision of American history, like his political stances, was precisely the opposite of Schweikart's.

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