We may have bit off more than we could chew this time. We tackled A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn which walks us through the formation of these great United States from 1492 to present. That is a lot of territory to cover and since Zinn’s charter was to not sugar coat the true story by omitting the uglier aspects of our history it is a dense and deep read.
None of us finished the book. This is not the first time that has ever happened, but it is the first time it has happened with a book that we essentially liked. We have committed to each other to try and finish it by our next meeting and I’m pretty sure it is a book that will come up over and over again, especially as we discuss how our past affects current events.
Zinn doesn’t shy away from the true economics of slavery and before that how “we” maneuvered the native people off their land. That’s a kind way of saying we stole it and then killed those who didn’t appreciate our rightful ownership. He also paints a very dreary picture of our founding fathers Andrew Jackson…not such a decent guy unless you were a white wealthy business or land owner. Funny how we don’t hear about those things in high school history class.
In Haiti, Columbus managed to kill half of the indigenous peoples in a two year period (around 1495) in his quest for gold. That’s an impressive feat - by the year 1650 none of the original Arawak people could be located, and entire native population was wiped out. It is no surprise that when Columbus arrived on the continent we now call home that the natives were identified as easily conquerable.
The book is at the same time overflowing with information and too brief. Slavery and the industrial revolution go on for chapters and chapters while WWI gets a brief overview. The more recent historical events are much briefer than the earlier topics – perhaps because we have a better understanding of those events. Maybe the industrial revolution needed investigative reporters to blow the lid off unions and labor issues.
The other thing that becomes clear is that there wasn’t one massive conspiracy to keep the little guy down and the rich guy rich… but a series of events and decisions made with a common element that seems to have been “How can I keep the power in my court?” Zinn doesn’t go so far as to suggest that there was a meeting and the folks who were trying to keep the peace while the newly emancipated slaves were demanding equality, openly discussed just how much they had to give in to keep the peace while not giving up too much control. “How about this Jedediah, what if we let them vote, but only if they own land. That’ll keep the numbers down, but they’ll have hope that one day they’ll have a say. That will help us deal with those pesky Irish immigrants that are about to hop off the boats too. They’ll want a say as well and we can’t have that.”
It seems cynical to view history through these eyes, but the version we are presented with most frequently is rather pretty and ignores certain events – such as the complete manufacture of the primary provocation for the Mexican war (we wanted the land north of the Rio Grande – pure and simple). It is no wonder that in our current age of desiring more information that someone would go back and review the archived materials and paint a more accurate picture of events.
Zinn doesn’t suggest that the US is an all evil empire, the evolution of the United States is a human story – it is a story of what people are capable of – good and bad. It isn’t surprising though that our neighbors in Europe and even in the Americas are openly irritated by our arrogance and holier than thou attitude. They probably have a better understanding of our history than we do.
None of us would advocate that if you only read one history book ever that this be the one – but it is a nice version to have in your library.