Summary of a People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
About the Author
The author of the book A People’s History of the United States is Howard Zinn. He is known as a civil rights leader, an anti-war activist, and an award-winning playwright. He is notably recognized because of this bestselling nonfiction book. This was considered a very controversial tome because of its presentation of the historical events of the United States. Many scholars and critics have praised it for its revelations and criticized it for its radicalism. In this book, Zinn reveals the stories from America’s history that are seldom told by the other books because of the sinister light they shine on the United States. These stories about America’s involvement in racism, colonization, war, politics and greed, aim to make us to think of the United States in a drastically different way.[footnoteRef:1] [1: “A People’s History of the United States Summary,” SuperSummary, , accessed April 20, 2019, retrieved from http://www.supersummary.com/peoples-history-united-states/summary/.]
Zinn himself writes that his book describes the struggles and toils “of those who have fought slavery and racism, of the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of working people, of the socialists and others who have protested war and militarism. So naturally it would be expected that the stories within A People’s History of the United States are not those of typical American triumphs that are told in most history books.[footnoteRef:2] [2: “A People’s History of the United States Summary & Study Guide,” BookRags, , accessed April 20, 2019, retrieved from http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-a-peoples-history-of-the-united-states/#gsc.tab=0.]
How it works
In the first few chapters Howard Zinn focuses on the discovery of America, its independence, and the American Revolution. He starts off strong, by his first chapter “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress,” wherein he detailed the capture and enslavement of Native Americans done by the crew of Christopher Columbus. His main reason for the voyage is to search for gold and spices in the New World but unfortunately they didn’t find any. At the middle of his voyage he was very lucky that he found North America, specifically, he arrived in a place known as Bahamas, were Arawak men and women emerged from their villages and offered them food, water and gifts. These Arawaks of the Bahamas Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable for their hospitality and their belief in sharing.
Moreover, upon the second voyage of Columbus to the New World, he failed again to find gold. With this situation. He kidnapped more Indians and many were dead on the voyage back to Europe. Accordingly, in Haiti he enslaved the entire tribes and let them choose – to search for gold or to be killed. One of the prominent European critics of Columbus’s tyrannical regime was Bartolome de las Casas, he was a young priest who owned a plantation in Cuba. He argued that the peoples of the New World were polite and mostly peaceful and with the advent of Christopher Columbus he destroyed the natives and putting them in horrific situations.
The following chapter entitled “Drawing the Color Line” is all about the African slave trade which ran rampant in America’s early years. For example, in Virginia, the settlers tried to force the Indians to work for them, but they failed because the settlers were outnumbered by the Indians, another one are the Portuguese, they abducted a million Africans from their homes and brought them to the Caribbean Sea and South America to work as slaves. Accordingly, African societies had their own forms of slavery, however, the African slave system was gentler than of the American slavery. African slaves could marry, own property and even own slaves themselves unlike the American slavery. There weren’t enough white servants to be use in agriculture and Black slaves were the answer.
Howard Zinn also mentioned that slavery isn’t, and never was a “natural” thing, as many white servants cooperated on multiple occasions to help the black slaves escape and find freedom. And one of these conditions would be the elimination of that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status, and has prevented that unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction.
The third chapter which entitled “Persons of Mean and Vile Condition” talked about the uprising known as the Bacon’s Rebellion after the death of the wealthy colonist Nathaniel Bacon. In 1676, in Virginia, group of black slaves and white servants united against their wealthy social superiors. The direct cause of this rebellion was extreme poverty and starvation. Bacon also overtaxing the Virginia’s settlers and monopolizing the lucrative beaver trade.
The white servant who rose up against the Virginian government were composed of criminals, vagabonds, or poverty-stricken English people who come to the New World in the hopes of a fresh start. Moreover, poor Englishmen signed a contract that required them to work for no pays for years as an exchange of slowly paying their debts.
The next couple of chapters follow the concept of tyranny, and the American Revolution, which was set about by the Founding Fathers, who used war to immobilize movements and distract the American public of the failing economy.
The fourth chapter “Tyranny is Tyranny” in the years leading to 1776, after the Seven Years War also known as the French and Indian War, Britain raised taxes in the colonies, which resulted to starvation and unemployment. Around 1776, powerful people in American colonies known as the Founding Fathers – composed an upper and middle class realized that they could manipulate the working classes’ discontentment of Britain’s policies towards the colonies to strengthen their power. Before the Revolutionary War happened there have been internal conflicts in the colonies in New Jersey, New York and North Carolina, the poor land tenants staged riots against their wealthy landlords.
The majority battles in Revolutionary War took place in the Northern Colonies. In Boston, by contrast, the Stamp Act attacked the economic security of the working, middle, and upper classes; in response, the working classes staged riots and demonstrations against the British. After the Stamp Act, however, American elites faced a problem: they needed to foster resentment for Britain without allowing it to endanger their own property. Thus, leaders like Samuel Adams encouraged the working class to be moderate, rather than rioting again.
“A Kind of Revolution” which is the title of the fifth chapter, covers about the Founding Fathers who won the Revolutionary War. The crucial role of the Founding Father was the usage of rhetoric in order to convince the large numbers of working-class to fight against the Britain.
William Scott was one of many Revolutionary fighters, usually of lower military ranks, from poor and obscure backgrounds. Shy’s study of the Peterborough contingent shows that the prominent and substantial citizens of the town had served only briefly in the war.
The Revolutionary War was a turning point for American Indians because it boost their morale and encouraged American colonists to Indians off their land.
The next chapter which was entitled “The Intimately Oppressed” discusses about the subordinate role of women in the early United States. The same as slaves, women during those time were treated as biologically inferior to men and treated as house servants. White women were brought to America for some reasons which is to bear children, become sex slaves and for companions. Black women faced even more oppression than the white women. They were taught by the Christian ideals of marriage, specifically the belief that women should be obedient to their husband in all aspects. In Puritan society, women are punished for showing any signs of disrespect.
Anne Hutchinson was one of the famous woman that time, had put to trial twice for heresy, and was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and went to Rhode Island. Women played a vital role during the Revolutionary War against the Britain. They also formed patriotic groups, wrote articles that are against the British policies and even boycotted British goods.
As the American society went to sweeping changes between the revolution and civil war the women’s roles changed too. By the 1940’s, when formal feminist movement developed, there are women speakers and organizers already. Women such as educator Emma Willard, physician Harriot Hunt and physician Elizabeth Blackwell pushed for the admission of women to institutions of higher education. Suffragist Lucy Stone attended Oberlin College in the 1840s and became an activist for women’s rights and abolition. Other reformers included public intellectual Margaret Fuller and abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimké.
The Revolutionary ideals of equality weren’t primarily intended to apply for women, but some like Thomas Paine spoke out for equal rights for women.
The next chapter which was entitled “As long as Grass Grows and Water Runs” discusses about the American treatment of Native Americans, the author looks at the various ways on how the Indians were treated badly including the wars waged against them and the instances in which they forced to relocate.
In 1800’s Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the country because of the Louisiana Purchase from France. His decision was to remove the Indians to give way for farmers, and as a result many Indians fought back and others said that they could live with the settlers. The famous person during this time was Andrew Jackson, he emerged from the fights with Indians in the Louisiana Territory, he was known for killing eight hundred Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. After he was elected as president, he then passed laws strengthening their control over Indians. Many settlers harassed Indians that resulted to forcibly leave their home. He also deployed an army to tell Choctaw and Cherokee Indians to leave their lands.
In chapter 8 it focuses on Mexican-American War with the support of Congress President Polk. They supported the war because they wanted to protect the troops and also wanted to acquire more territory in the Southwest. From the Whig Party they opposed the war for the fear that slavery would spread to the new territories and the most notable opponent was Abraham Lincoln. The American Anti-Slavery Society protested the war and Henry David Thoreau was imprisoned for refusing to pay taxes that would be used as fund to the war. Other opponents included Frederick Douglas and the abolitionist journalist William Lloyd Garrison, both believed that new territory was meant for the expansion of slavery.
The ninth chapter looks at the slavery and the condition of African Americans in the 19th century that came after the Civil War. In 1831, Nat Turner gathered seventy slaves and killed fifty-five white men, women and children. This resulted to constant fear among slave owners, and they even tried to prevent rebellion by harshly punishing the slaves. Many slaves run away from their plantations because of working hard every day for free. Slave owners fear about the uprising, decided to enforced laws that would separate whites from blacks.
In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act passed by the Congress stated that the northern states were required to return fugitive slaves who made their way through north to their masters down south.
The next chapter talked the struggles of rural and urban working class Americans against powerful economic and political forces in the 19th century. In Hudson River Valley in the year 1839, group of land tenants organized themselves and refused to pay rent. This Valley was owned by the same family, having a huge income by renting out small property to farmers. At the same time, there was a minor commotion known as Dorr’s Rebellion in Rhode Island. Thomas Dorr was leader, a lawyer and mobilized the working class to demonstrate for reforms because this was the only state that has no universal suffrage for its white men residents. He abolished laws that required voters to own property. He then charged with treason and sentenced to jail.
The rests of the chapters discusses the 19th century which was the age of “robber barons” such as J.P Morgan, John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie grew corporations ruthlessly. It also analyzes the effects of income inequality during and after the Industrial Revolution.
Moreover, throughout the 19th century the U.S had been planning to expand overseas, and the Monroe Doctrine which was issued during the presidency of James Monroe in 1823 stated that the U.S would protect democracy anywhere in the place. They are also the instrument in opening up Japan when Commodore Matthew Perry made a naval demonstrations. Theodore Roosevelt called it as the right of the whites to take control of the uncivilized and develop their land. U.S wanted to expand its territory and its interventions were never presented as self-interest but rather heroic.
In 1906 Upton Sinclair published a book entitled “The Jungle” it was a shocking novel as it shows the harsh situations in the Chicago meatpacking plants. Another one, Ida Tarbell attacked the corruption of the Standard Oil Company and Lincoln Steffens criticized the corruption of municipal planning.
However, there were thousands of factories accidents in the 20th century and was estimated of having a million workers were unemployed because of this incident. The result was the workers mass demonstrations and union membership grew. These union continued to exclude black members and even more the immigrants and the women. In 1905, Big Bill Haywood a legendary leader held a huge meeting – the I.W.W, the International Workers of the World. They organized diverse strikes in Lawrence Massachusetts. Wool and textile workers, immigrants and women went on strike and the I.W.W used their system to send soup and money in order to support the strikers.
On the other hand, at the height of World War One, a radical writer Randolph Bourne wrote “War is the health of the State”. Millions died and cities were destroyed, the governments of the Western world flourished and class struggle was stilled. James Wadsworth, Senator from New York said that war could prevent people from being divided into classes. President Woodrow Wilson promised that U.S should stay neutral, but he reversed his policy because German submarines had attacked American vessels. The main reason for his decision to send his country to war because of the economic necessity. U.S was of serious recession since conflict with Europe was a threat to their foreign markets. The American capitalists decided to trade with England and became a market of American goods and for loans at interest.
American’s history during the World War two was very different among other countries. It was called as the people’s war, a fight where capitalist, communist, working class and upper class Americans supported the war. The reason why U.S entered the WW Two is when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Franklin Roosevelt presented this event as shocking and immoral act. They had been locked in competition for control of the Southwest Pacific. Later, Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter which they claimed that their countries respected the right of all people to choose the form of government under they will live.
Langston Hughes wrote a poem and the last part of it was a line “or does it explode?” It was interpreted the failure of African American dream of equality. A black novelist Richard Wright, in his novel Native Son described the misery of the black community and showed how the white pitted blacks against one another. Black people were not satisfied of government reforms, they boycotted discriminatory institutions and famously done in Montgomery bus system, it was initiated by Rosa Parks and led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many whites attempted to kill King and they even blew up black’s churches.
The U.S spent billions of dollar and ten thousands of lives to fight a nationalist group between the years of 1964 and 1972 but they failed. By citing the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, peasants and farmers demanded their rights to self-determination, and was organized by a communist named Ho Chin Minh. In order to stop the revolution, the French bombed the Northern Vietnamese Cities. A named Ngo Dinh Diem was installed as a leader of South Vietnam by the cooperation of the American government and French leadership. Apparently, Diem’s regime was unpopular since poverty was rampant during his time.
In the 19th chapter which was entitled as “Surprises” actually a lot of surprises had happened. For example after 1920, women could vote alongside men and their subordinate conditions changed. They even played a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Betty Freidan published a feminist classic entitled The Feminine Mystique, which denounced the social system that women are forced to surrender their and their roles is just to serve their husbands and children. They demonstrated and fighting against Vietnam for their Civil Rights. Many working class women organized neighborhood people to fight injustices and lobby for services.
The last two chapters discusses the growing scandal of President Richard Nixon. This was one of the major factors that encouraged people’s fight against their status. In the early year of 1970’s the system was out of control. Americans were coming together in order to fight against the governments and large corporations. Five burglars were caught because they tried to break into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington, D.C. They appeared to be closely connected to Nixon officials. This resulted that the public turned that Nixon was the suspect and was involve in many illicit actions. Many social institutions had turned against Nixon too, the reason was that he was unstable politician. With that, Nixon resigned from the White House rather than to face impeachment by Congress.
This book actually starts off really great as the author warned the reader to not be taking a neutral stand instead the author viewed history inly from the oppressed. The book is very helpful in understanding the history of the peoples of America. A wonderful book that will change how you see the world today as it presents the history of farmers, enslavement and the women of African American society. It paved way to open ourselves to one well-documented historical records of the United States and this is the history of the United State that should be taught in schools.
This book is very essential reading for all high schools and college students, it’s very important to know the history of the people of America that have been harmed by the Western Imperial Capitalism, and how they fought back in order to win their rights against the colony. I admit that this book made me sad and angry specifically on the first part, as how Columbus committed genocide against the Native people of North America. It’s just very ironic because the native people had helped the settlers in order them to survive but after all it’s their fault because the colonists could not get the things they wanted to, and let the native suffered from their abusive and violent administrations.