Paper on ‘A People’s History of the United States’ by Howard Zinn

I was helping a co-worker with her class for community college. She wound up not using any of my notes, which was a total waste of my time — but I figure I may as well write the paper and make it public domain. Forgive the structure of answering a few professor’s questions for the course, but it makes it a breezy enough read. I


As the old adage says, "History is written by the victors". Howard Zinn’s main purpose for writing A People’s History of the United States (1980) was to provide an alternative to the history written in school textbooks, which are written/endorsed by the elites of American society. School textbooks and the paid federal holidays on the calendar celebrate important events from the winner’s point of view. The same way Thanksgiving commemorates what was a picnic to one side, and a genocide to the other; from this mainstream point of view, Columbus was a navigator and explorer, and his discovery of the Americas was the greatest discovery in the history of the world, but his ugly legacy can no longer be denied.

What the textbooks omit is, that there were losers in the encounter between the Americas and Europe. The Native Americans/Indians, African slaves, and poor whites were all exploited by the wealthy upper classes to build a society for colonial profit and aristocratic largesse, but this is not emphasized in the history we read. Howard Zinn points out that in a multivolume biography of Christopher Columbus written by a Harvard historian, in these many volumes, only a single sentence bring up the stark fact that Columbus’ policies (and his successors) lead to the genocide of the Arawak natives he met. Zinn applauds the fact that the word genocide was used, but the fact that that is buried several hundred pages in the book, he says, is a product of the society and privilege of the Ivy League historian who wrote it. The biography ends with alot of praise, "most of all, without any flaws", Columbus’ skill "as a mariner". The title of the biography is "Christopher Columbus, Mariner", and the author spent several months of his life navigating the exact route that Columbus took from Spain to the Bahamas.

The reality of that Columbus immediately enslaved and slaughtered the Indians who welcomed him with open arms and shared everything they had was completely ignored by the official history produced by the great minds of early 20th century America. When Columbus later landed on Hispaniola, within "two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the Indians on Haiti were dead." (Zinn, Kindle location 671).

Columbus was a war criminal, but that is never brought up on the day we have a parade and federal holiday in his honor. (Zinn, 734). Regular historians who write the history which benefits the people in power are not intentionally lying, according to Zinn. They are simply trained in the top schools and benefit from the entire system of colonizing the people and natural resources of the Americas that has been going on since the day Genoese navigator landed. And because they come from this position of privilege, they "unwittingly" (Zinn, 780) have to bury all the information about Columbus’ evil actions in an mountain of other facts. I find it is more than ironic that in downtown NYC (where three top courts reside on the same triangle; the US Federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the US Southern District court, and the NYS Supreme Court) also has a famous memorial to a nearby Indian burial ground, where the bones of dead slaves and Native Americans were found. Living on colonized land, our society is always engaged in a kind of double-think, to distract us from the fact that we are all living on ground soaked in the blood of dead Native Americans and African slaves.

"In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners… it is the job of thinking people… not to be on the side of the executioners." (Zinn, 794) Howard Zinn wrote this history book to challenge the normal history taught in American schools, which then becomes part of pop culture and the national conversation. Our teachers lied to us, and so have our government. Not only about our past, but also about our present. Zinn feels it is important to learn about history, not to mourn something terrible that happened long ago, but to understand how it affects us today.

"If history is to be creative… it should disclose those hidden episodes in the past…" (Zinn, 803). It is also ironic, that the Black Hills of South Dakota were promised in treaty to the Lakota, but the treaty was immediately broken once gold was discovered in 1875, and we have our monument to four presidents at Mount Rushmore in these same sacred hills. (A monument to conquest, no doubt.) But today, the same land is contested for the Keystone oil pipeline, proposed and approved by the current government, to allow (once again, for profit) outside development of holy territory to the native peoples of the land.

Zinn’s first chapter has the central thesis that Columbus’s first contact with the Indians was not unusual or extreme in its brutality and murderousness. The act of cutting off hands, forced labor to sift for gold in the rivers, backbreaking work in the fields was not a one-time event. Every European arrival to both the Caribbean and North and South America followed the same pattern of murder, rape, loot and pillage. Hernando Cortez (Zinn, 812) was welcomed with the finest gold and silver objects by the king of the Aztecs. Within a few days, Cortez had massacred hundreds of Aztecs and removed the king from power. Spain was the new master of the Aztec lands. In Peru, the same method was used to destroy the Inca Empire. In the Carolinas, the English colonists of Jamestown was so helpless, they were forced to eat dead bodies and live in holes in the ground, and frequently ran away to live with the Powhatan Indians. Although the Indians helped them survive, once the English settlers had enough numbers, they would burn their crops and attempt to take captives.

The Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower in 1620, would also lead to the genocide of the people who saved them when they arrived. (Zinn, 862). Within 150 years of European contact, "the official figure on the number of Pequots now in Connecticut is now 21 persons" (Zinn, 898). They used the Bible to justify their evil deeds, "bring forth my glory, unto the nations, even to the farthest corners of the earth", just as Christopher Columbus said to "Go forth in the name of Christ, and bring back slaves" from the Bahamas. Just as Columbus, with 0 Arawak surviving within 130 years of the arrival of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.

Zinn also estimates that "the Indian population of 10 million that lived" in what became the United States "would ultimately be reduced to less than a million" (Zinn, 916). Since the Indians had no immunity to the diseases of the Europeans, disease killed more than 90% of the Indians who became infected with smallpox.

Today, it is so funny, how we consider America and Europe "the advanced countries" and leaders of the Free World. But in reality, there is so much murder and theft behind all of this, that really, I think the Indians of the Arawak were civilized, and Columbus and the other European conquerors were the "savages". The brutality and cruelty forced upon the Indians, and their enslavement and mass murder, show that as soon as the Europeans stepped off their ships, they wanted to exploit the New World in every way. They wanted to enslave the people, force them to grow cash crops to send back home, and take their land, and leave nothing for the indigenous people themselves, except death and misery. And all this was against a people who showed these strangers kindness, and a child-like innocence, sharing everything freely. The barbarism and brutality of Western civilization really shocked me, and I am glad that I read this book.


In his second chapter, The Color Line, Zinn talks about how the Indians were not very good slaves for the purposes the Europeans needed them. The Iroquois Indians, for example, raised their children to be leaders, and deferred potty training (Zinn, 1001), preferring to let a child clean him or herself. In addition, the lndians knew the land and could easily hide in the woods when the English colonists of Virgina and Connecticut hunted them down with dogs. White settlers "could not capture them and keep them enslaved; The lndians were tough, resourceful, defiant, and at home in these woods, as the transplanted Englishmen were not." (Zinn, 1076). Because the lndians were tough to capture and force into backbreaking labor, "black slaves were the answer" (Zinn, 1085). Portuguese slavers were the first to use their contacts to bring more slaves to grow tobacco and sugar into the Americas. The fact that you could kidnap an African from the interior of Africa, then sell him or her on the coast, on a ship with "dark, wet slime on the ship’s bottom, choking in the stench of their own excrement", and then bring them to a new land, where they were neither Indian or white, made it MUCH easier to force the African slaves to submit.

The ruling classes who needed the slaves, saw that there was alot of common overlap between poor whites (who were indentured servants) and blacks (who were first brought as servants, but they must have known their foreign-ness would reduce them to the level of a slave). To help create a difference, the courts merely extended the period of bondage to white servants who ran away, and much longer sentences for blacks ("the third, being a Negro … shall serve his master for the time of his natural life", Zinn, 1190). Soon, the state legislature like the House of Burgesses in Virginia would make laws with separate rules for blacks and whites. So as we see, (although judge are supposed to administer justice, and elected officials supposed to think long-term for society), judges and state officials conspired to reduce black slaves in legal status for the profit of wealthy landowners. Just like they did with the Indians, black slaves quickly became sub-human in the Americas. And this was all supported by ruling elites. America today reminds us of opportunity, and freedom and liberty; but in reality the history shows that these were only rights given to wealthy white men. They were always scared of poor whites and blacks getting together, so they had to create a racist society were blacks were inferior, even to poor whites like the Irish.

Howard Zinn is trying to show us the roots of racism in America. He vehemently disagrees with the common justification of racism, that "we are all racist". Instead, we should look at institutional and structural and historical reasons why and how racism is entrenched in our society.

"Slavery grew as the plantation system grew" and by 1763, "slaves were half the population" in Virginia. Soon laws against blacks and whites marrying were passed. Even friendships could lead to political revolt and therefore was frowned on. Despite the idea that slavery kept imported Africans in a state of helplessness, many ran away. And although the Constitution officially banned slavery after 1808, (20 years after its signing), the trade was lucrative enough that it continued. However, every decade or so at turn of the 19th century, there occurred a major slave revolt, including Nat Turner (1831) and Denmark Vesey (1822). The involvement of sympathetic whites scared the slaveowners even more, so any kind of friendship was discouraged.

Common history states that Lincoln fought the civil war to free the slaves. However, Lincoln did not really care about black slaves and their freedom. In one speech he gave before being elected President, he stated he had no wish for blacks and whites to live in an equal society, and would even consider sending freed slaves back to Africa (Zinn, 4278). Just like the slaves which were sold on the auction blocks by Boston harbor, before the Civil War "conservatives in the Boston upper classes wanted reconciliation with the South" (Zinn, 4313). The upper class in the North wanted to work with the upper class in the South. (As much as we look at the North as free from the taint of slavery, the reality is they were shipped through here like chattel.) Lincoln was really representing the wealthy in the North, not the poor blacks and whites of the South. After Lincoln’s death things got worse, with numerous riots against blacks to shouts of "kill the nigger" (Zinn, 4414). Black soldiers were paid less than white soldiers in the Union Army, so the doctrine of equality was absent from their liberators’ minds.

Even after they were free, the ruling elite class in Congress tried to find ways to limit the freedom of the free blacks. When Mississippi passed a law against blacks owning land, the federal government in Washington DC did nothing to oppose them (Zinn, 4509). Whereas Lincoln passed Homestead Acts to allowed any common man to develop and own acres of land out west, President Johnson repealed these laws, and collaborated to give them to lenders and speculators. In this way, the wealthy classes were compensated for their loss of slavery, and the racist culture of the south would be allowed to continue after Lincoln died. The promise of 40 acres and a mule never materialized.

Things only got worse from there. "The southern white oligarchy used its economic power to organize the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups" (Zinn, 4599). Angry whites went on rampages, killing 50+ blacks at a time in Memphis and New Orleans. The worst came in 1896, when the Supreme Court ruled on Plessy v. Ferguson, which stated that states can discriminate based on race (even though this was supposed to be prohibited by the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments passed by Lincoln), and allowed blacks and whites to be "separate but equal" (Zinn, 4637). When a Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes became close to being president in the curveball election of 1866, the ruling elites in Congress agreed to take federal government troops out of the south, in return for electoral votes to the Republican — allowing the aristocratic Southern landowners to take power again, just as they had before the war (Zinn, 4647). Blacks knew they really did not earn their freedom from "the Yankee" (Zinn, 4455).

W.E.B. Dubois wrote that exploitation of poor whites and blacks is the common factor in American history, and instead of any change after the Civil War, things went back to normal when the economically-dominant North agreed to let racist laws pass in the South (Zinn, 4744). There was money to be made after Reconstruction, and with the death of Lincoln, people with money and people with power got together and decided to make more money and more power, at the expense of poor whites, blacks and Indians. This is the central thesis of Howard Zinn, and I very much appreciate his attempt to undo the brainwashing that has been carried out in American society for all these years.

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