Book Review: A People’s History of the United States

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This book takes a fresh look at the history of the United States. Instead of focusing on great men, it instead focuses on the marginalized and overlooked. So, instead of looking at history from the perspective of wealthy and famous white European men, we hear the stories of poor African slaves, poor whites, harassed Native Americans, and oppressed women. There is also a clearly Marxist bent to Zinn’s interpretation. The determinative factors in the course of American history are not ideas, but material forces. People behave in ways that best serve their economic interests. They do not act in accordance with high ideals, but in accordance with what will make them the most money and protect what they already possess. Ideals are just disguises. Words like liberty and equality are just devices meant to motivate naïve people into following the schemes of the rich. Zinn often mentions income inequality. Of course, this is always an economic indicator of great interest to a Marxist because a Marxist thinks capitalism is on the verge of collapse. If only a small subset of the population has the bulk of the wealth, resentment will clearly be generated.

Zinn begins by contrasting the land-grabbing, greedy Spaniards, led by Christopher Columbus, and the naively hospitable Native Americans. The Native Americans believe in sharing, and so they welcome their eventual conquerors. Native Americans eventually get wiped by disease and the restless acquisitiveness of European settlers, who kept asking them to move westward.

The rebellion against Britain during the American Revolution, often depicted in history books as the battle between a cruel imperialist power and high-minded American leaders, is actually the product of the machinations of wealthy American men who wanted, for selfish reasons, to rid themselves of British interests. To do this, they invented a myth that would motivate the common man, since if the common man knew the truth that the real motivation is just greed, they of course would not fight.

White male settlers of European descent also were thoroughgoing sexists, according the Zinn. The noble promises of the Declaration of Independence, i.e. that everyone is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, extended only to white males with property. Women were not permitted to interpret the Bible for themselves in some early Puritan colonies.

Zinn’s history is actually very depressing. History is a complex reality and I wonder if you can find information to support any overarching interpretative framework. The question is, did Zinn’s interpretative framework come before the evidence, or did the evidence provide grounding for the framework? If we already accept a doctrine, it is natural to see evidence of that doctrine everywhere. Apart from being self-confirming, reading this history is upsetting because it tends to sap patriotism out of one. The vision of America that Zinn presents is of a land once possessed by indigenous peoples who were eventually brutally displaced. The Native Americans lost their lives at the hands of capitalistic Europeans who also took advantage of free labor provided by millions of African slaves. One is led to conclude that the American government and its founding document, the Constitution, is illegitimate. This book has had a remarkable influence and forms part of the backbone of contemporary progressivism.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: A People’s History of the United States

  1. Dan. Thanks for a very good summary of this book. It’s important to understand that there were injustices during our history (and there still continue to be ) but I am not sure I would like to only hear the negative about how our country was founded. It sounds like this book needs more balance. Nice job Dan. I enjoy reading your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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