Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Reviewed by Aaron Noronha

zinn

To call Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States a work of revisionist history is, in some respects, a massive understatement. Zinn’s 1980 bestseller not only attempts to portray American history from the viewpoint societies lower classes, but it also aims to radically challenge almost every popular conception of US history that people have been taught – that Columbus was not a hero but a killer, that the Founding Fathers cared not for personal liberties or freedoms, etc. While there are some methodological faults in his work that weaken his arguments, Zinn also provides excellent insight into the lives of societies oppressed – the poor, women, blacks and Natives. By analyzing how A People’s History of the United State portrays class, I hope to show that Zinn’s work overly generalizes the relationship between classes in America, but that it is valuable for bringing to light stories that are not often told.

Analyzing Zinn’s background and upbringing go a long way towards explaining the quasi-socialist, anti-government views that are evident in A People’s History. Born in 1922 in Brooklyn, New York City, to a Jewish immigrant family with limited education, Zinn truly understood what life was like for the “lower classes”. His father ran a struggling candy store during the Depression, and Zinn and his family moved often throughout the Brooklyn slums. The works of social critic Charles Dickens and socialist philosopher Karl Marx were some among the first pieces of literature that he read, and possibly influenced him to organize labour rallies. This causes him to develop sympathies for the working class, as well as develop an antagonism towards big business and government. To his credit, Zinn fully acknowledges and embraces these views, openly expresses his dislike of Western government, saying: “There is very little in the government that I admire, but there is much that I admire in the United States”.[1] He makes his reader in A People’s History well aware of these views saying: “this book will be skeptical of governments, and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest”.[2]

Zinn sympathies for the oppressed are evident from the very first page of his book, when he describes Christopher Columbus’s arrival to North America. He says the Arawaks of the Bahamas, and the Indians on the American mainland were renowned for their hospitality and sharing, values he said did not exist in Renaissance Europe because of the “religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization”.[3] He first chapter focuses on the oppression of the Indians at the hands of the Europeans, something he believes has been ignored for most of history.

The relationship he presents between the Indians and colonizers is similar to the relationship he later depicts between the American lower classes and the government elites. Through all the growth that occurred in the Thirteen colonies throughout the 18th century, he says it was the upper class who benefitted the most. He cites Boston as an example, noting that from 1687 to 1770, the top 1% owned had gone from owning 25% of the wealth to almost 50%.[4] Even during the Great Depression of the Thirties, Zinn says that the New Deal, was aimed primarily at stabilizing the economy for businesses, and that it gave only “enough help to the lower classes to keep them from turning a rebellion into a real revolution”.[5] By depicting the lower classes as being subjected to the will of the elite, Zinn attempts to show that American history, commonly seen as a beacon of light for liberty and democracy, is in reality, far from it.

One key value of A People’s History is in its countless oral sources that are beneficial in providing a perspective of life that goes beyond numbers and records. Zinn uses primary source quotes extensively throughout his work, including for key events including the Revolution and the Spanish-American War. When discussing American Independence, Zinn counters the idea that Americans saw their society as morally superior to Britain, by quoting a lower class woman, Elizabeth Sprigs who said: “What we unfortunate English people suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to conceive”.[6] While one women’s testimony cannot possibly prove this argument, it is nonetheless valuable for showing that views, critical of American life, did exist

In another example, discussing the Spanish-American War, Zinn uses quotes to show that some Americans were skeptical of the war. One quote is from a Black solider in the Philippines who said: “Our racial sympathies would naturally be with the Filipinos. They are fighting manfully for what they conceive to be in their best interests. But we cannot for the sake of sentiment turn our back upon our own country.”[7] Firstly, by quoting a solider sympathetic to the people they were fighting, Zinn is trying to show that the common people did not want this war. Secondly, by quoting a solider is willing to fight for his country, despite ambivalence about the cause, he is also trying to demonstrate the prevalence of American elites “brainwashing” the common people to further their own causes.

For all of his work’s value, there are numerous methodological and historical inaccuracies that can be found throughout the book. One of Zinn’s major shortcomings is his tendency to generalize the characteristics of social groups like African-Americans, women, the working class, and especially the Natives. Zinn portrays the Native Americans in a very favourable light, continuously referencing their kindness, courteousness, their peaceful nature and their firm sense of right and wrong. He notes these qualities in the Iroquois tribe, and promptly ascribes these tendencies to all other nations. “Not only the Iroqouis but other Indian tribes behaved this way.”[8] This is a terrible simplification made to support his view that all colonizers abused the innocent natives. On the contrary, certain Native nations were extremely violent, and often allied with European states against other tribes. Zinn off course, ignores this.

Another criticism of Zinn’s work is in his portrayal of the working class as victims of oppression. Zinn does not recognize the reality that people of the lower classes could abuse each other as much as the elite did. During the Reconstruction era for example, Zinn blames the elites for violence against Southern blacks, noting that Northern elites made compromises on legal protection of blacks so that the South could be more easily reincorporated into the Union. He blames the elite for this violence, but rarely mentions the fact that it was largely the working class who orchestrated violence against Blacks. For example, the Klu Klux Klan, who Zinn sparingly mentions, were not composed of members of the elite, but of regular Southern Americans.[9] This fact is irrelevant to Zinn, who desires to blame the elites for all ills that befall the lower classes.

Zinn shows the same kind of contradictory language when it came to the Great Depression. When describing the Depression, Zinn again finds a way to spin this national crisis into a situation where the elite were abusing the lower classes. He says “there were millions of tons of food, but it was not profitable to transport it, to sell it. Warehouses were fill of clothing but people could not afford it.”[10] This quote tries to ascribe blame for the worsening situation of the Depression to the elite, saying there were food and homes for people but that since it was not profitable to the elite, people suffered. This is simply inaccurate, considering that many large businesses were failing as well and that many wealthy individuals also saw themselves struggling to find food and work. However, because these individuals do not fit within his worldview, he ignores them.

At the end of the day, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States paints a picture of America that is very different from what people have generally been taught. Not all of this depiction is necessarily inaccurate; there are moments Zinn depicts where American government, and the upper class did take advantage of the lower classes. American involvement in the Spanish American War is one example of this. Zinn’s use of oral sources as evidence for his arguments, while somewhat misleading, are also valuable for the attitudes and language that are expressed. Of course, I would argue that most of Zinn’s arguments are made without qualitative and quantitative evidence. Throughout his book, Zinn spouts anti-capitalist, anti-government, anti-business beliefs that make it appear as though those with money are evil, and that those who have been historically oppressed are without sin. He paints a simplistic picture of America, a picture that fails to account for the diversity of views and beliefs that did exist within American society.


[1] A People’s History post script 9 – 10

[2] Howard Zinn, A people’s history of the United States: 1942-present. (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 10

[3] Zinn 1

[4] Zinn 49

[5] Zinn 393

[6] Zinn 105

[7] Zinn 318 – 318

[8] Zinn 21

[9] Zinn 205

[10] Zinn 387

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