Friday, November 19, 2010

Reading Notes: A People’s History, Part I


History is a tricky thing to study and certainly a difficult thing to interpret and analyze. Think about it this way—an event happens and individuals walk away from it with their own experiences; this is simple enough. But then time passes. Memories fade. Later events change the dynamic or meaning of earlier ones. Individual interpretations differ. But the history is still recorded. Well….who records it? From whose perspective is it told? We often accept textbook history as unbiased, straightforward fact because what other option do we have when there’s only one book sitting in front of us? And with things long since past, does it really matter if all the complexities and nuances aren’t related along with the dates and places?

This is the major thought behind Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States—to view history from the perspective of the masses instead of the powerful few who inevitably record history to their own liking.

Zinn starts the story of American with Columbus’ discovery. And not with his “heroism” for which we celebrate a national holiday but with his massive genocide of native peoples and exploitation of their land. In the opening chapter, Zinn pretty much concludes that America was built on land of unjust bloodshed—the obliteration of a “savage” culture for the sake of progress, automatically labeling them as “inferior” without ever taking the time to determine how true that assumption was.

Yes, this all sounds incredibly extreme and pessimistic because it is—Zinn is not a positive guy. But I think it’s an interesting and important perspective to consider.

Beginning in chapter two, “Drawing the Color Line,” Zinn determines that one thing influenced the behavior of early Americans from its discovery to its founding and independence—money.


  • The slave trade was justified, even by religious groups, because of its economic benefits. 
  • The strong distinction between the rich and the poor was manipulated and strengthened to preserve the social arrangements of the “Mother country.” 
  • The unprivileged groups—slaves, Indians, and poor whites—were numerous and had the potential to be very powerful, but the upperclass pitted one group against another, in the form of racism and class scorn, to avoid a united uprising. 

Despite internal conflict, the ruling class of the new colonies found that by manipulating language and creating a false sense of patriotism and unity, they could persuade everyone to direct their rebellious energies towards England in a fight for independence (which would, of course, economically benefit the upperclass). Even if men were not behind the cause, the opportunity to enter the war as a soldier and exit with more money and an improved social status—in other words, economic reasons—was motivation enough to unite against Britain.

Some notable, underlined statements:

“We have a forecast of the long history of American politics, the mobilization of lower-class energy by upper-class politicians, for their own purposes. This was not purely deception; it involved, in part, a genuine recognition of lower-class grievances, which helps to account for its effectiveness as a tactic over the centuries.”

“Indeed, this became characteristic of the new nation: finding itself possessed of enormous wealth, it could create the richest ruling class in history, and still have enough fore the middle classes to act as  a buffer between the rich and the dispossessed.”

“…town mechanics, laborers, and seamen, as well as small farmers, were swept into ‘the people’ by the rhetoric of the Revolution, by the camaraderie of military service, by the distribution of some land. Thus was created a substantial body of support, a national consensus, something that, even with the exclusion of ignored and oppressed people, could be called ‘America.'”

“…[The Constitution as] the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support.”

This first section of the novel concludes with one basic idea: governments are not neutral; they represent the dominant economic interests, and the United States was essentially founded on exploitation of the lower classes by the upper class. I think this book is definitely one capable of inciting completely polar reactions. There are reactions like this one that find Zinn incredibly whiny and pessimistic. And then there are reactions like this one that find Zinn’s words to be more truth than the words in any other history book and declare this a must-read for every American.

I’m not sure where I fall in all of this, because I kind of see both sides. I think it is important to read a perspective that is unknown or rarely seen, yet Zinn is just another opinion; he has his own biases, and this book is full of them. He is essentially taking primary sources and drawing his own conclusions, which is something anyone and everyone has the capability of doing. And he does take into account and acknowledges that actions taken by our ancestors need to be viewed and judged in the context of their own times. I’m going to enjoy this history lesson from a different perspective, but I don’t think it should be taken as fact any more than any other history textbook.

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