Zinn’s People’s History of the United States

Published 01 Nov 2017

The simple answer to the question is that Zinn prefers to emphasize the atrocities and the negatives that occurred during the period of Columbus’ incursions and Pilgrim settlements into the New World.

In the case of Columbus, there is great emphasis on the fact that plunder and conquest was the main objective of the discovery. Furthermore, there is significant emphasis on the issue of whether or not Columbus was an imperialist seeking to enrich himself as opposed to presenting the man as a noble discoverer driven by altruism.

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The Pilgrim settlements were set up with an apparent disdain for the indigenous people. There really was no desire to co-exist with the Native population, but due to the harshness of the climate in which the Pilgrims found themselves, there were attempts to co-exist. As time grew on, militias were formed and clashes with Native people occurred. In time, massacres were conducted by both sides and co-existence became impossible.

As the cliché goes, history is written by winners. US history does not reflect the more violent conquests that occurred during the era, but rather traditional history presents the landings of Columbus and the Pilgrims as that of discovering land that was “wide open.” Native American cultures were more egalitarian than the urban European societies. As such, history generally emphasizes that the Europeans were appropriating land that was not “being used.” In other words, most things that would appear negative (in regards to writing history) or would cast the Pilgrims or Columbus in a negative light are generally ignored because, after all, they did get the ball rolling for the eventually birth of the United States, regardless of the brutal nature in which the ball was initially set in motion. Zinn approaches the history of the United States as one that not has accurately been portrayed and tries to fill in some of the gaps that had previously existed.

The “other civil war” generally refers to an economic civil war between those members of the privileged class and those who were members of the working class. This variant on a second Civil War can be seen in a number of movements that had occurred during the 19th century.

The Anti-rent movement was a ‘civil war’ of sorts civil disobedience type defiance of rent and property laws. A second sort of civil war existed in the manner in which people tried to force electoral reform on the state, as they felt the electorate was corrupt. Neither of these campaigns succeeded to the degree in which those involved would have preferred.

Eventually, much of the strife that existed between the classes exploded in the form of the labor movement. While the struggle for unified labor unions was a bloody one, it was successful, at least for a time, anyway.

Per Zinn, “the new politics of ambiguity” was the means in which control was used. In this system, according to Zinn, the concept of having two political parties that were pretty much similar allowed people to rebel by voting for opposition parties, but ultimately since these parties were similar to one another, the ability to achieve anything was stifled. To a certain degree, it appears Zinn is suggested a more Marxist approach to government, which (ironically) is significantly worse than any perceived politics of ambiguity.

To a significant degree, the Civil War provided an impetus for further class conflict as evidenced by the anti-draft riots that occurred in such places as New York City and elsewhere. (Since $500 could purchase a way out of the draft, quite a bit of resentment festered.)

Furthermore, Lincoln passed a series of laws that protected business interests as well as strengthened the anti-labor movement. While one can debate whether or not these were positive or negative impacts on the USA, one can not deny that there were those who took exception to the laws. This leads to a significant degree of anger on the part of the working class.

On a very basic level, Zinn is referring to the entirety of the capitalists system. Per Zinn: Crisis was built into a system which was chaotic in its nature, in which only the very rich were secure. It was a system of periodic crisis–1837, 1857, 1873 (and later: 1893, 1907, 1919, 1929)–that wiped out small businesses and brought cold, hunger, and death to working people while the fortunes of the Astors, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morgans, kept growing through war and peace, crisis and recovery. During the 1873 crisis, Carnegie was capturing the steel market, Rockefeller was wiping out his competitors in oil.’ The standard method in which workers responded to such problematic times was to declare a strike in order to re-acquire things lost during periods of economic hardship.

These incidents marked periods where labor unrest and strikes were met with brutal suppression from the police and the national guard. Much of this documented suppression would later become illegal under the law of the nation, but at the time they occurred, using law enforcement and military to suppress striking workers was common and ripe with abuse. In many of these instances, striking workers were severely injured or even killed.

The strengths of the worker’s unions were that they provided collective bargaining rights as well as a unified front in the face of the overwhelming power of big business and the state/federal government. The weaknesses were that unions were often not as organized as they appeared to be and had a tendency to not purge the prevalent racist ideologies that were commonplace during the period. Because of this, racial tension and division existed within the ranks of organized labor.


  • Howard Zinn; Anthony Arnove ‘Voices of a people’s history of the United States’ New York : Seven Stories Press, 2004.
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