Jason’s Ranting & Raving

Those who don’t read have no advantage over those who can’t.

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

Posted by jaystile on December 2, 2008

I have never read a book that has fundamentally changed the way I view the world. My friend offered the label “consciousness raiser”. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn is the most profound history I have ever read. It has challenged my core assumptions about the country that I live in. It is not that history has been misstated in the books we have read in high school and college, it is that they have been understated. A People’s History takes the perspective of the poor and underprivileged and shows how they have been repressed and exploited by the privileged few systematically through the centuries. We as people of the United States of America are and have been led by a small group that does not represent the majority but that of the wealthiest 1%.

Wikipedia has an a great chapter by chapter summary. Come with me while I take you through a few examples and quotes from this book.

Chapter 1: Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress

An excerpt from Christopher Columbus’ log regarding the Arawak people in the Bahama Islands: They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…. They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of America! (except for the fact America was already populated)

The Spaniards did subjugate Hispaniola (now The Republic of Haiti and Dominican Republic). Another quote: They rode the back of Indians if they were in a hurry or were carried on hammocks by Indians running in relays…. The Spaniards thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades. Of the estimated 3-8 million indigenous people of Hispaniola none survived. Every last man, woman, and child was killed by disease, hunger, or the sword.

Chapter 13: The Socialist Challenge
After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 was signed by Abraham Lincoln all the slaves were free. There was no more slavery in America! Well, don’t you worry the Establishment has lots of societal and economic pressures to keep the majority in line. The rights established by the Emancipation Proclamation were not enforced until the Civil Rights Movement was well under way. So if you are a Native American, Black, Immigrant, Homosexual, or Woman you did not get equal treatment under the law. In fact, sometimes you had special rules applied to you ( Jim Crow Laws, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ) if you were a woman working as a teacher in Massachusetts in 1900:

  1. Do not get married.
  2. Do not leave town at any time without permission of the school board.
  3. Do not keep company with men.
  4. Be home between the hours of 8 P.M and 6 A.M.
  5. Do not loiter downtown in ice cream stores.
  6. Do not smoke.
  7. Do not get into a carriage with any man except your father or brother
  8. Do not dress in bright colors
  9. Do not dye your hair
  10. Do not wear any dress more than two inches above the ankle.

In the early 1900s people begin to form unions to protect their rights. Like the right to work a 12 hour day instead of 16 hour days, for enough money to buy food and pay rent, for children to go to school instead of work in the factories under dangerous conditions. But that was too much for your wealthy masters. Strike breakers were brought in to take the jobs of those striking. Union leaders were killed. Strikers were threatened, beaten, fired upon, and killed by police and by our own National Guard with permission from government.

Chapter 8: We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God

Every war that America has been involved in has had an economic backing. They are too numerous to note. Let us take the Mexican-American War. In the White House now was James Polk, a Democrat, an expansionist, who on the night of his inauguration, confided to his Secretary of the Navy that one of his main objectives was the acquisition of California. His order to General Taylor to move troops to the Rio Grande was a challenge to the Mexicans. And do we really think the war in Iraq is about freedom?

Historically Accurate

Historically Accurate

Closing Comments

A People’s History is a long read weighing in at 688 pages. Not only that, the content matter is challenging and disturbing. Everyone should be required to read this book to fill in the gaps in their knowledge of the United States and perhaps to reflect on their unbridled nationalism. I am aware of the fact that we would not be the world power we are today without the actions of our current and historical leaders, but that still does not make it right.


One Response to “Book Review: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn”

  1. Laz said

    I too read Dr. Zinn’s book and was informed(I did a post on it as well though not as extensive as yours, see the 3rd “Possibly related post”).

    To be sure the history of this country is not a pretty one, but no country’s history is.

    Unfortunately, that is the way of this world, but that doesn’t mean we cannot attempt to alleviate this.

    As for my paisano with the sign, I’m sure he conveniently forgot that our fatherland’s esteemed and incompetent (and equally greedy) leadership are as much to blame as the Americans.

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