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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

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

Summary:

Zinn's main argument in chapter 1 of A People's History of the United States is that traditional histories often glorify explorers like Columbus while ignoring the violent consequences of their actions on indigenous populations. He emphasizes the importance of viewing history from the perspective of the oppressed and marginalized to gain a more accurate understanding of past events.

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

Zinn opens with an account, from the Arawak Indian point of view, of the horrific slaughter and suffering that came to them and Indians on other nearby islands when Columbus and his followers arrived. Zinn states that the genocide inflicted on the Indians is not ignored, but quickly brushed over by traditional historians such as Samuel Eliot Morison, encouraging us as readers to slide over it as well. What is traditionally emphasized in histories, at least up until 1980, when Zinn published this book, is the Western achievement in gaining the New World. Atrocity is brushed aside and justified as the price of progress. This, Zinn says, is simply one version of history, one that chooses to side with the ruling classes in society. As Zinn puts it,

The historian's distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.

Rather than tell the story of US history from the point of view of the victors or dominant classes, Zinn wants to emphasize the story of the underdogs in society, what is often called the view from below. He is very clear that he does not want to romanticize the lower classes, fully recognizing that they can be cruel and victimize each other, nor does he want to paint the upper classes as all bad, saying they are also victims of the cruelties of the systems they perpetuate. But he does want to nuance and enhance our conventional historical narrative and focus on moments when common people managed to make a positive difference.

Much of chapter one focuses on contrasting the societies of Indians and Europeans, emphasizing the equality and relative (not absolute) peacefulness of the Indians versus the hierarchy and violence of the colonizers.

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

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

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

The first chapter presents a challenge to the traditional viewpoint of the progress of the United States. While there has been a great deal of demographic and economic expansion throughout its history, Zinn argues that there is another side to the story that is often overlooked—namely the aspect of conquest and oppression.

Zinn's argument is that America is a nation that has a history of oppression, violence, and victimization which has systematically silenced minority groups or those less economically privileged. This paints a much darker and pessimistic view of the nation's history but also illuminates the areas that are often overlooked in cursory studies of American history. In the end, Zinn simply wants to question the mainstream perception of the advancement and progress in America and make sure that all sides of the story are examined and/or challenged.

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

Howard Zinn opens the chapter, and the book, with an analysis of Columbus’s early encounters with Native peoples in the Caribbean, especially the Arawaks. He questions traditional interpretations which emphasize the early explorers' skills as navigators, for example, but downplay the violence of their attacks against the people they renamed Indians.

Zinn urges readers to weigh carefully the kinds of evidence that historians present and the reasons they choose such information. He quotes Henry Kissinger: “History is the memory of states.” When the past is told from the point of view of governors, conquerors, and leaders, promoting the idea that they “deserve universal acceptance,” the perspectives of all others are lost. Dissent and the often violent and even genocidal repression of it are thus underplayed.

For the US, Zinn claims, such perspectives suggest that the leaders, such as presidents and Congress, represent the whole nation and suggest there is one unified “national interest.” Zinn regards this as a myth. “Nations are not communities and never have been.” Instead, fierce conflicts of interests render every country

a world of victims and executioners...[in which] it is the job of thinking people...not to be on the side of the executioners.

At the end of chapter 1, Zinn suggests that we should question the emphasis on “progress” in telling history, which has emphasized “the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization.” The role of such positions in constructing US history, in particular, is the subject of his critical stance.

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

In Chapter One, Howard Zinn challenges the reader to view the history of the United States through a different lens. Zinn argues that most histories are told through the perspective of the elite. The elite can be defined as those that are in power or those that benefit from the actions of those in power. Zinn explains that this does not paint a complete picture of the how events unfold. In fact, this way of narrating history can be considered flawed at best, and dishonest at worst.

To illuminate his message, his narrative examines the exploration of the New World. Traditionally, the story of Christopher Columbus is delivered in a way that glorifies is expeditions. Christopher Columbus is presented as a seminal figure in the progress of mankind. Chapter One dispels this notion in a provocative way. Zinn skillfully tells the story from the perspective of the Arawak Indians that Columbus interacted with. From this lens, the reader realizes that the colonization of the New World came at a great cost to the natives that inhabited these lands.

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What are Zinn's arguments in Chapter 1 of A People's History of the United States?

Howard Zinn titled the opening chapter of his A People’s History of the United States “Columbus, the Indians and Human Progress” to further establish his argument, discussed in his introduction, that the “discovery” of America represented anything but “progress” to the people who already lived here, the indigenous tribes or Native Americans. Zinn begins this chapter with the following quote from Christopher Columbus’s journal, in which the European explorer describes an early encounter with a native tribe:

They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned... . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. . . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. . . . They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. [Emphasis added]

I placed the above comment regarding Columbus’s vision of these benign and generous people as possessed of the potential to “make fine servants” to further illustrate Zinn’s central thesis: That American history, as traditionally taught, ignored the very real calamities that befell the indigenous tribes who quickly fell under the domination of European interlopers. Imperialism, Zinn makes clear, was a defining feature of world history and the most damning and consequential was that practiced by European powers. The clash between the indigenous tribes and the literally lost but thoroughly rapacious Columbus, who, Zinn emphasizes, was possessed by the thirst for wealth, mainly in the form of gold, was catastrophic for those who occupied this country before Columbus’s arrival. Again, in the following passage from chapter 1, Zinn notes the contrast between innocence and evil:

So, approaching land, they were met by the Arawak Indians, who swam out to greet them. The Arawaks lived in village communes, had a developed agriculture of corn, yams, cassava. They could spin and weave, but they had no horses or work animals. They had no iron, but they wore tiny gold ornaments in their ears. This was to have enormous consequences: it led Columbus to take some of them aboard ship as prisoners because he insisted that they guide him to the source of the gold.

Prior to the publication of A People’s History of the United States, very little was taught in American schools about the negative ramifications of European/American policies. Zinn sought to address that gap by emphasizing not the perception of heroism or greatness that traditionally accompanied the teaching of American history but the consequences of European/American actions for the certain communities. For the Native American tribes who greeted arriving Europeans, the notion of “human progress,” Zinn argues, was anything but.

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What are Zinn's arguments in Chapter 1 of A People's History of the United States?

In Chapter 1, Zinn makes the point that the celebratory portrait of Columbus given in most history textbooks is wrong. In contrast, he paints Columbus as a brutal man driven by avarice. He was intent on finding gold and enslaved the Arawaks he found in the Bahamas to further his aims.

Zinn quotes extensively from Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish priest who documented the Spanish treatment of the natives and who became opposed to Spanish policies. Las Casas writes,

Endless testimonies . . . prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives. . . . But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy.

Las Casas writes that it is understandable that the natives tried to resist Spanish domination. In citing las Casas's testimony, Zinn hopes to correct the narrative of Columbus as hero. Instead, he portrays the Spaniards as greedy and savage and the natives as pacific and only motivated to protect themselves in self-defense. Later in the chapter, Zinn shows that the English were also brutal to the Native Americans they encountered, continuing some of the savage policies of the Spanish.

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What are Zinn's arguments in Chapter 1 of A People's History of the United States?

The first chapter of A People's History of the United States is mostly an account of Christopher Columbus's encounter with Native Americans in the Caribbean. Essentially, Zinn is interested in turning the traditional narrative of this encounter, one which emphasizes the heroism of Columbus, on its head. Quoting heavily from Bartolome de las Casas's work A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies, he describes Columbus's motives as essentially driven by a desire for wealth. Because the explorer was willing to employ brutal methods to extract wealth from the Indians, who are portrayed as peaceful and docile, the results were tragic. Zinn quotes Las Casas to underscore the point:

Endless testimonies...prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives...But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle, and destroy...[Columbus] was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians...

The larger point that Zinn is interested in making is that historians have, he claims, largely ignored the suffering of the natives because they have focused on "governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders." Zinn's approach is to look at a series of events through the eyes of Indians, slaves, women, factory workers and others who have, he argues, been ignored in the American collective memory as well as by traditional historians like Samuel Eliot Morison (though not by many recent historians, a point Zinn does not always emphasize.) In so doing, he not only explicitly advocates for the oppressed in today's world, but problematizes the narrative of progress that he views as part of Western mythology.

Source: Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995)3-11.

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