To be honest I never heard of Howard Zinn until the 1990s. A People’s History of the United States was not, to my knowledge, used in any of my graduate classes when I attended the University of California nor in my short time actually on campus did I ever hear it referenced. Of course, I was only there in the Ph.D. program for one year, right after Zinn’s book came out, so the influence would have been relatively small.
Years later, in the early 1990s, Michael Allen and I met at a Western History Conference, and we decried the state of mainstream textbooks. Even then, I don’t recall Zinn’s title coming up. Around 1999, we decided to write a counter to the mainstream textbooks, including The American Pageant, The National Experience, Nation of Nations, and many others, and still were not even concerned with Zinn’s book. I don’t recall it coming up in discussions until A Patriot’s History of the United States was sent to the publisher sometime around 2002 or 2003. At that time, we had enough awareness of the book (in my case, still only the title and the reputation), to include in our subtitle, “A Patriot’s History of the United States.” But even then, or original title as submitted to the publisher was “The Cup of Hope: A Patriot’s History of the United States.” The publisher immediately jumped on that—more aware of Zinn’s influence that we were—and said, “THIS . . . A Patriot’s History of the United States needs to be the title.” And so it was.
Yet to this day, people ask, “Did you write this to counter Zinn?” and the answer is no. We wrote Patriot’s History to counter the mainstream textbooks. We had no idea A People’s History would become so influential and had vastly overestimated the ability of educators and school boards to see through the propaganda.
Over time, we found Zinn becoming more and more prevalent. Whereas our original “competitors” in the arena of ideas were the nominally biased Nation of Nations or American Pageant, we found that students began telling us with increasing frequency that People’s History was being used in high school AP courses; in college courses; and even in traditional high school courses. It began with only a print run of a few thousand copies, according to Anthony Arnove, who wrote the introduction to the Thirty-Fifth Anniversary Edition of the book. Arnove later noted that as of 2003 the book had sold 2.6 million copies. That’s quite impressive for a 700+ page history book. Zinn himself later said that in the first 10 years after publication the book went through 24 printings and sold 300,000 copies (meaning it had spiked in usage since 1990). It is worth mentioning that our Patriot’s History of the United States had in its first decade gone through 27 printings and sold over 300,000 copies. Zinn’s book was reviewed by the New York Times by fellow leftist Eric Foner. The only mention the New York Times gave to PHUSA was in a discussion of conservative history books that had come out. Needless to say, our “reviewer” wasn’t as sympathetic to our position as Foner was to Zinn’s (although Foner did note that Zinn seemed to think those being oppressed lacked the capacity to resist). Foner also correctly noted (“Introduction to the Thirty-Fifth Anniversary Edition”, xvi) that People’s History “reflects a deeply pessimistic vision of the American experience.”
Well, yeah. What did you expect from a Marxist, who saw all interactions as oppressor-oppressed? Anything short of a full communist revolution would have required Zinn to be “pessimistic.” Zinn tells us right off the bat that he’s trying “to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks . . . the standpoint of the slaves . . . [of industrialism] as seen by the young women in the Lowell mills” and so on. In other words, he wants to tell a selective story of America using selective evidence.
In the coming lessons we will look at Zinn’s horrible coverage, but to do so we need to review what is “good history” and how historians go about their craft. In the early 1800s, a group of historians called the “nationalists” put out a favorable history of America’s past. It didn’t misstate anything so much as it ignored any warts or black marks in American history. By the late 1800s, a group of “German” historians concluded that history was too much influenced by “values,” and so they developed a “school” called the “German School” in which there was an intended separation of “fact” from “value.”
The inherent problem is that they are inseparable. There are just too many facts about anything to include them all. Recall in the Bible that John said there were so many things that happened just in Jesus’ three years of active ministry that all the words on earth couldn’t cover it all. So any selection of this fact over that fact doesn’t make either untrue, but it means that the historian must engage in selection of facts on the basis of significance. That is a value judgment. Merely picking this fact over that one is a value judgement choice. It says, “I think this fact (or set of facts) is more important than those.” The point is, a good historian looks to determine which facts will tell the truth, not just “a story.” Historians can differ over what is the truth, but good historians will seek the truth—to show what really happened by extracting the facts that would reveal the truth, not just to show what they wished was the truth.
Thus, when Zinn frames the “inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history,” he deliberately ignores the key element involved in that selection, which is that it is focused on revealing the truth. The “young women of the Lowell textile mills” indeed have a story. But it is the central, most significant part of the story that should be told? This gets us to “significance.” My definition of significance is “that which changes trends or patterns or which has the largest impact on people as a whole.” A group of women working in a mill in the 1800s was somewhat novel—but in the end, they were laborers who could, unfortunately, be replaced. (The reason women were there in the first place is they worked cheaper than men, and they were later replaced by Irish immigrants, who worked cheaper than women). But for America the significance was that the Lowell Mills were started and competed strongly with English textile mills, not that the mills had people to work them. It goes without saying that if there were no people to work the mills, there would be no mills. Consider the iron workers and oil refinery workers: those were necessary, skilled, and important jobs. But they pale in comparison to the world-changing impact of Andrew Carnegie of John D. Rockefeller. Again, it comes down to significance: If you have limited time and space to tell a story that captures the MOST significant person, whose story do you tell—that of the iron worker or that of Carnegie? There is no question. Historical significance is the story of change over time. Therefore, while a historian should not ignore slavery, it always must be kept in the context that there was no change over time in slavery until people in England and America, armed with what we today call theories of “civil rights,” sought to end slavery. Significance is not to focus on what is never-changing (i.e., slavery) but in what caused its end.
Next time we will look at some of Zinn’s background, and why, ultimately it didn’t matter nearly as much as his ideology when it came to his horrible history.