I was surprised to learn that the textbook my daughter was using for her US History class is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I had long been an admirer of Zinn’s lefty outlook on the world from interviews Zinn did in the last years of his life, though I had never read any of his work. Finding out that my daughter is reading his signature book was apparently the encouragement I needed to read the book myself.
While the first edition of People’s History was written nearly 40 years ago and the last edition is over ten years old, the book is timely, and oddly comforting in these last weeks before the inauguration of Trump. I came away from People’s History with two guiding consolations. First, Trump is no aberration. His misogyny, nativism, racism, and venality have deep roots in the history of the United States. If this doesn’t seem like much of a consolation, I might put it another way: the country has been through crises like Trumpism before. Second, for all the suffering the Trump administration will cause millions of people, for all the theft of public goods that is coming, there is a countervailing force of decency in the American character as well. The courage of Frederick Douglass and Fannie Lou Hamer, of Mother Jones and Eugene Debs, of Daniel Berrigan and César Chávez–and of millions of others–is available to us as well. We can fight, in many small and powerful ways, if decent Americans are willing to give up their self-satisfaction and passivity and security to stand up for our country.
While I was familiar with every period Zinn wrote about in People’s History, I don’t think I had ever seen all these periods stitched together into a single overarching vision. Basically, Zinn’s contention is that the true history of the United States is not defined by the actions of presidents and congresses who have worked at practically every turn to enrich a tiny economic elite–by preserving slavery, by massacring the natives, by invading Mexico and Cuba and The Philippines, by overthrowing democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Chile and Iran. Rather, American history is made up of the often overlooked struggles of the oppressed, the working class, the unrepresented. It is a history of people fighting, over centuries sometimes, to be included in the opening phrase of the Constitution: “We the People.”
It’s an inspiring–if sometimes flawed–vision. I believe that what it offers, in a crowded field of history texts, is a truly alternative analysis of the history of the nation. Many critics have accused him of bias, though I would argue that what Zinn has done instead is abandon the pretense of objectivity that sometimes smothers the work of other historians. No historian, no human being, can be a thoroughly objective observer of the human experience. In telling any history, we leave neutrality behind as soon as we decide which events we will focus on and which ones we will omit.
And so many history texts, even those informed by the counter-cultural critique of history that came out of the 60s and 70s, still focus the actions of “the great men,” the Jeffersons and Jacksons and Roosevelts, with entire social movements of millions of ordinary people receiving comparatively little mention, or in some cases no mention at all. Zinn’s timely contribution is to argue that US History was not made by the Jeffersons and Jacksons and Roosevelts–that our elected leaders were responding to massive social and economic currents that they could barely influence, let alone control.
Presidents and congresses and supreme courts are led by the people, not the other way around. Unfortunately, according to Zinn, our elected leaders have usually been in thrall to what Occupy Wall Street popularized as “the 1%”: industrialists, financiers, speculators, robber barons. But frequently enough, a demand for justice will rise up from the roots of society with enough force that the elected leaders must listen and the law responds. The end of slavery, women’s suffrage, the 40-hour work week, the civil rights movement–all of these changes came, not from the courage of Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, U.S. Grant, or L.B.J., but in response to the demands of ordinary Americans. Those demands took decades to make themselves felt sometimes, and the success of those demands depended on the tremendous courage of millions of people, but nearly every advance that the US has made in social justice has been led from below, not from above.
One can work towards neutrality and fairness in writing by committing to telling as many sides of the story as one can–a very common, and admirable, approach among the historians I’ve read. But it’s also valuable to have someone standing outside that system, observing from without, making no claim to neutrality–someone who pulls back the curtain on the mainstream view of American history to expose the so-called historical consensus as a fiction. Zinn’s book has helped me see my country in a new way.
And he’s helped me get my game face on for the time to come: if I want a humane minimum wage for Americans, if I want truly public college education and single-payer health care, I have to fight for those things. Not because I expect the hamfisted con man we just elected to respond to my demands, but because he may make enough people angry enough to care. The day will come when we have a free and equitable society, ruled by justice and reason. It’s up to us to make it.