Revised and Updated Edition
1980 (this edition: 1995)
This will be a short profile of a book that has been discussed heavily in other forums since its publication. A People’s History of the United States is a major work of history, focusing on political oppression in the United States and the radical social movements that emerged to respond to such oppression. The book’s author, Howard Zinn, was a social activist, in addition to an academic, and he spent much of his career working at Boston University. Zinn had been involved with the American Civil Rights movement (and one of his best known books is about the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, an influential Civil Rights organizations which has been discussed previously on this blog in relation to John Lewis’ memoir), and later in the anti-war movement during the 1960s, and other social justice movements throughout his life.
A People’s History, first published in 1980, was a response to all of the books of American history that focus on the European explorers, founding fathers, and industrialists who made the United States, bit by bit, into a superpower. Zinn’s book looks at the social consequences of those historical stories that have made up the mythology of the United States, and examines how, historically, common people have been effected by the actions of America’s elites. Zinn’s story is not just a narrative of social victims, however, as he heavily emphasizes the radical movements that emerged to fight political oppression, and each chapter seems to take a different aspect of this as its focus. In Chapter 9, for example, Zinn discusses the institution of slavery in the America, but also the abolition movements that fought against slavery, and even discussed the details of several specific slave rebellions. Labor Unions and Anti-War organizing are also persistent themes. This book demonstrates that this alternative to the dominant telling of American history has its own heroes.
Some of the movements discussed by Zinn are virtually lost in most tellings of American history. Chapter 10 is about the vestigial colonial mode of land ownership and management in the north during the 19th century and the Anti-Rent movement that erupted among agricultural workers who basically fought a war against land owners in New York state. Zinn’s book also details the history of the anti-war movement during the Second World War, which is virtually unheard of in most histories of the period, which generally take up the line that WWII was the good war. Finally, Zinn’s final chapter in this 1995 edition is about the first half of the Clinton years, with a critical analysis of the then current president’s commitment to progressive values. Zinn published updates and revisions to this book quite often, and the final edition, published in 2005, contains a more complete chapter on the 1990s (including discussions of the Militia Movement, and Mumia Abu Jamal) as well as an analysis of the early Bush II years.