Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”

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Category: Legal History, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public

For over twenty years, I have enjoyed reading and assigning Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” I especially like Zinn’s efforts to see history “from the bottom looking up,” that is, to capture the thoughts of not leaders and prosperous citizens but rather simple and subjugated people – workers, immigrants, women, African Americans, and Native Americans, among others. It therefore came as a surprise to learn that Mitch Daniels, Indiana’s former Governor and now President of Purdue University, attempted to drive Zinn’s book from Indiana’s schools.

While he was still Governor, Daniels emailed Indiana education officials asking them to prevent the use of Zinn’s book in the state’s K-12 classrooms. Daniels said “A People’s History of the United States” was a “truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation.” Daniels also called the book “crap,” and he seemed pleased that “this terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.”

Daniels’ criticism of Zinn and his work is on one level political. To wit, we have a right-wing politician condemning a leftist historian, albeit one who is deceased. (Didn’t Daniels’ parents ever tell him to let the dead rest in peace?) On a more fundamental level, Daniels’ criticism of Zinn also betrays a failure to grasp what the writing and the study of history entails.  

I think this is what the Organization of American Historians (OAH) had in mind when it said Daniels’ obtuseness provided a “teachable moment.” Use Daniels’ comments, the OAH said in a formal statement, to underscore that historians and history teachers do not simply report names and dates but rather interpret past developments, debate ideas, appraise each other’s works, and so forth. History as a discipline is neither a science nor a social science; it is one of the humanities.

Putting aside Daniels’ simplistic and tawdry comments, we might note some of the debatable interpretations mainstream historians and history teachers put forward: (1) The earliest settlers in the North American colonies stood for religious tolerance and freedom, (2) Manifest destiny necessitated moving aside the native peoples, (3) The northern states fought the Civil War to end slavery, and (4) A market economy results in unparalleled prosperity for one and all. These contentions have sizable toe holds in the “established historical wisdom,” but Howard Zinn was prepared to question them. Even if we do not agree with Zinn’s conclusions, we should thank rather than condemn him.

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2 Responses to “Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States””

  1. Mitchell Scott Says:

    I don’t think Mr. Daniels likes question marks. In his worldview, I apologize if I am being presumptuous here, the the four interpretations mentioned above are to be be closed with a period. Full Stop. What Zinn did was place question marks at the end of some mainstream or established historical understandings, including the four listed here. American Exceptionalism has a weak stomach for question marks – I only hope that a maturation in media, educational and political circles takes place allowing us to discuss such matters with an abundance of question marks, commas, and even the awkward pauses of the aposiopesis.

  2. Gordon Hylton Says:

    I have mixed feelings about this entire episode. I actually have favorable views of both Prof. Zinn and Gov. Daniels. Both, it seems to me, were given to exaggeration.

    Zinn was capable of being a very good historian. His first book, on LaGuardia’s career in Congress, is superb, as are his two books on the South and Civil Rights, The Southern Mystique and SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Reading these books, there is no question that Zinn is a man of the left, but the accounts are balanced and far from polemical.

    It appears to me that at some point in the late 1960’s, Zinn gave up on real history and became a propagandist for the (then) New Left. Even though the movement failed, it made Zinn a nationally known figure, and he continued to play to his audience.

    A People’s History is simply not a good book. In its Manichean account of corporations and plutocrats versus the people it consistently goes for the low hanging fruit, and it includes simplifications of complex problems that Zinn had to know were misleading. It is no surprise that the biggest fans of the book are rebellious high school students and Hollywood celebrities.

    I have my doubts as to whether Mitch Daniels has actually read A People’s History. The factors that made the book so appealing to Zinn’s fans led to is author’s demonization by right wing writers and commentators, and the fact that Zinn has a number of prominent liberal critics, like Michael Kazin and Sean Wilenz, appears to give credibility to the conservative critique.

    As a Republican moderate who wants to be president some day, Daniels must constantly be thinking about the need to shore up his support among members of the right wing of the Republican Party. Referring to Zinn’s A People’s History as “truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation” is Daniels’ effort to pick some low hanging fruit of his own.

    I, for one, think that he can do better than that.

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