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Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – PRESENT

15 Sep 2017Literature Essays

First published in 1980, Zinn's book was revised and updated in 1995. The front cover describes the book as a "step toward a coherent new version of American history." The back cover calls the book an "antidote to establishment history." In twenty-three chapters (675 pages with index) and an Afterword, the author offers an alternative history of the United States, claiming to give voice to those whose stories are usually ignored. Instead of writing from the viewpoint of the powerful and elite, he turns to the exploited, even to the victims, of American history. The idea that US history is a story of progress, of national unity and of single-minded pursuit of the American dream, misrepresents what happened, he argues.

Instead of assuming that there really is a "United States" with a single "national interest," he describes history in terms of conflict between different interests. History is usually presented to make people believe the establishment version that glorifies the nation, its leaders, seeing a string of iconic events as almost always representing progress. Calling this the "memory of a state," he says that this history is not really "our history", since "nations are not communities and never have been" (p. 9). He does cover such iconic events as the Civil War (chapter 9) and Vietnam (chapter 18) but focuses on less well know episodes, telling the story from the bottom up, not top down. This made the book attractive and interesting. It is easy, even compelling to read. However, after finishing the book I was not convinced that such a history exists, at least as told unambiguously from an exclusively elite perspective. Zinn may have set up a straw man in order to knock him down.

In the process of reconstructing history from the under-side, Zinn covers a great deal of material, beginning with the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. He recounts crimes of genocide, territorial theft and conquest. The settlement of Europeans in the Americas was driven by a morally ambiguous drive," the "the need for space" and "land." In the process of settlement, Indians were dispossessed, cultures destroyed and annihilated (p. 22). Subsequent chapters continue to challenge the idea that the history of the US represents moral and human progress, in a more or less straight line. Chapters show how America's economic and military success rests on the shoulders of many exploited men and women, of blacks, slaves and migrant workers, of those who received little reward or recognition. To reconstruct history from the bottom, Zinn used journals, letters and articles in less well-known magazines as well as work by other historians. Yet the majority of his sources are what could be called mainstream, published by respected academic and university presses. Given that he uses a great deal of published material, the claim that his approach is "new" seems suspect. Much material was already available in the books he cites.
Chapter 8, "We take nothing by conquest, thank God" is an example of how the book would have benefited from more explicit ideological commentary. Having stated that history always reflects ideology, that he intended to side with the underclass, not with those who want us to believe in a nation committed to the common interest, Zinn sometimes takes too much for granted. At the start of chapter 8, he refers in passing to the Louisiana Purchase that "doubled the territory of the United States" (p. 147). The title of the chapter presumably implies that the US's territorial expansion was qualitatively different from how other nations expanded, because the US purchased Louisiana, so blood was not shed. This, though, does not make sense, because Zinn has already chronicled how Indians were dispossessed, forced to move to new territory and how conflict after conflict took place between Indians and the US. How anyone could ever claim that the US expanded without bloodshed is beyond comprehension. Even if the government wanted people to believe that the US spread West peacefully, many people would know that this was not the case, since they were personally involved in bloody events. How could anyone be fooled by a bloodless version of the story?

The chapter describes President James Polk's vision of the US stretching from coast to coast, how he maneuvered a confrontation with Mexico with the explicit purpose of gaining territory. Zinn cites enthusiastic support for this project. God was invoked, as was "destiny," "the destiny of the white race" to "march from ocean to ocean" (p. 153). No role here for black people or Indians, except as servants and slaves. Yet there were dissenting voices, voices raised in defense of Mexico and against war. Churches were mainly either "outspoken for the war" or kept silent, with some exceptions. Irish workers went on strike in New York, arguing that what was intended was to extend and perpetuate slavery in the West, which was contrary to the US ideal of "progress." Some Newspapers also protested. How, they asked, would the annexation of half of Mexico "give us more Liberty, a purer Morality, a more prosperous industry, than we have now?" (p. 157). These voices of protest appear to have been vocal at the time, even if they did not carry the day. Zinn did not have to dig too far to find voices on both sides of the debate.

Chapter 11, "Robber Barons and Rebels" looks at the great American icons of entrepreneurship, industrial and commercial success. He says that while a few people went from rags to riches, most iconic figures did not start in poverty (p. 248). The Rockeffellers and the Carnegies, he says, rose to the top not only as a result of talent but also by exploiting others, by "choking out competition, maintaining high prices, keeping wages low" and "using government subsidies" (251). After telling the stories of some of the icons of industry, he turns to the unions and workers' associations that demanded better conditions and wages. Again, there is ample material available. Some of these barons are still remembered for their philanthropy, which Zinn does not discuss. Reference to how the National Guard was called out to suppress a strike and "six hundred miners were rounded up and imprisoned in bullpens" (p. 270) is shocking and does not sound like any type of progress, or sharing of the American dream. Yet does anyone really think that people become millionaires wearing kid gloves, paying everyone fairly and never ever hurting anyone? Is anyone deceived by a one-sided story of how the rich grew rich?
Zinn speaks of the need to be "skeptical of governments and of their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interests" (p. 10). However, he does not explain how government controls the academy, which largely comprises private schools and scholars with no particular reverence for the establishment. On the other hand, many ordinary people probably did not think Indians had a right to their land, so did not see equate against them with violence against people.

Many subscribed to racist ideas about white superiority. Perhaps they did accept the "government's" version, although it is not altogether clear that this idealistic, official history exists. People know that blacks, Indians and women fought for rights, and still do. Throughout US history, voices spoke against wars, territorial expansion, exploitation and injustice and still do. I would like to have asked Zinn if he really thought that an "official" version of history fools anyone, other than its writers, if such a history exists.

Referenses

  • Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States: 1492 - PRESENT." Revised edition, 1995. NY: HarperPerennial.

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