Howard Zinn’s book is a history of the United States, but it’s also a critique of other books on the same subject. Zinn argues that many previous histories of the United States haven’t been fair in their accounts of the past; in particular, they’ve glorified Establishment figures, marginalized or demonized the contributions of the ordinary American people, and celebrated superficial reforms for being revolutionary. While Zinn doesn’t offer a full-scale investigation of bias in American history, he suggests that many historians write biased versions of history because they’ve gone through an education system that’s funded by the Establishment (see Establishment theme), and they have been trained to give authority and tradition too much respect. With this in mind, A People’s History of the United States represents Zinn’s attempt to balance out some of the more unfortunate biases in American history texts. Because most books marginalize the American people and overemphasize the Establishment, Zinn chooses to do exactly the opposite. Unlike many historians, Zinn acknowledges his ideological and political biases upfront: he writes that he’ll emphasize the American people’s contribution to history. Furthermore, Zinn was frank about being sympathetic to some of the political ideas of Karl Marx, the founder of Communism; partly as a result, his book treats history as a conflict between people of different classes.
In what ways does Zinn’s version of history differ from other, more mainstream versions? At times, Zinn’s approach is to write about a familiar, well-known historical event, but from an unfamiliar perspective—that of the persecuted people. When he discusses the “discovery” of America, for instance, Zinn refrains from glorifying Christopher Columbus in the manner of most elementary school textbooks. Instead, he draws his readers’ attention to the suffering of the Arawak Native Americans whom Christopher Columbus murdered, tortured, and kidnapped. At other points in the book, however, Zinn makes an effort to write about events that are relatively unfamiliar to the average American, usually because they revolve around working-class people, and, as a result, have been omitted from history textbooks. Zinn spends many chapters analyzing the organized labor strikes of the 19th century, which had a profound impact on American society but which too-rarely show up in student textbooks.
Zinn also avoids the tendency to write about history by concentrating on the lives of a few important individuals. While his book is full of fascinating people, no single figure in A People’s History—not even Dr. Martin Luther, Jr. or Abraham Lincoln—is portrayed as having played an indispensable part in changing the country. Instead, Zinn shows individuals like Lincoln and King to be responding to the will of the American people. At other times, Zinn’s approach to history is more abstract; he idealizes alternative visions of society. For example, he devotes several pages to conveying the beauty and complexity of Native American society before the arrival of Columbus, and he even posits that Native American society was happier, more equitable, more democratic, and more stable than European society in the 15th century. By celebrating the societies that European conquest wiped out in America, Zinn challenges one of mainstream historians’ most dangerous forms of bias: the assumption that society progresses over time, and that European society “improved” America by replacing Native American culture with science and rationality.
Zinn has been criticized by many writers and historians for being too one-sided—deliberately one-sided, in fact—in his account of American history. However, Zinn is open about his biases, and in interviews and other books, he repeatedly said that he didn’t want A People’s History of the United States to become the “last word” on American history (especially given his practices of ignoring contrary evidence and speculating about people’s motives without grounds). Rather, Zinn wanted students to put his text into conversation with other, more mainstream history books, so that his work could balance out the bias in other books. If he were alive today, Zinn probably wouldn’t appreciate that college students still treat A People’s History like the unimpeachable truth, rather than as a primer designed to help them learn about American history and question their biases.
Bias and Historiography ThemeTracker
Bias and Historiography Quotes in A People’s History of the United States
If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.
That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.
The point of noting those outside the arc of human rights in the Declaration is not, centuries late and pointlessly, to lay impossible moral burdens on that time. It is to try to understand the way in which the Declaration functioned to mobilize certain groups of Americans, ignoring others. Surely, inspirational language to create a secure consensus is still used, in our time, to cover up serious conflicts of interest in that consensus, and to cover up, also, the omission of large parts of the human race.
Meanwhile, the government of the United States was behaving almost exactly as Karl Marx described a capitalist state: pretending neutrality to maintain order, but serving the interests of the rich. Not that the rich agreed among themselves; they had disputes over policies. But the purpose of the state was to settle upper-class disputes peacefully, control lower-class rebellion, and adopt policies that would further the long-range stability of the system. The arrangement between Democrats and Republicans to elect Rutherford Hayes in 1877 set the tone. Whether Democrats or Republicans won, national policy would not change in any important way.
The great problem would be to work out a way of accomplishing this without a centralized bureaucracy, using not the incentives of prison and punishment, but those incentives of cooperation which spring from natural human desires, which in the past have been used by the state in times of war, but also by social movements that gave hints of how people might behave in different conditions. Decisions would be made by small groups of people in their workplaces, their neighborhoods—a network of cooperatives, in communication with one another, a neighborly socialism avoiding the class hierarchies of capitalism and the harsh dictatorships that have taken the name "socialist."