Posted: May 9, 2005
ublished a quarter century ago, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States sought to vanquish the myths of American exceptionalism by reinterpreting our national story from Columbus's "conquest" to the Carter presidency (although it has been revised and expanded to include 9/11). Zinn, a professor of history at Boston University until his retirement in 1988, claimed to write from the perspective of people abused by history's hegemons, and saw his project as nothing less than a historiographical revolution.
Twenty-five years later, the revolution has gone mainstream. The "new social history" movement from which Zinn took inspiration is now widespread throughout the academy. A People's History has sold more than a million copies since its publication. The book is also available in a teaching edition that has inspired the sales of lesson plans, history wall charts, and companion collections of primary source documents. "Comrade Zinn," as he was called by the Eugene V. Debs Foundation, is now in classrooms all across America.
Drawn by his brisk prose, conspiratorial plot lines, and zeal for political confrontation, Zinn's readers have made him a hero of leftist causes from East Timor to the Upper West Side. Worshipped like a rock star at anti-war rallies for the last 35 years, he opposed not only the Gulf War and the war in Iraq, but also the war in Afghanistan. Joining his battle against "guns and greed" is his ideological twin, Noam Chomsky, and the army of students that they have led into radical activism. "If democracy was to be given any meaning," Zinn writes near the end of the teaching edition of A People's History, "if it was to go beyond the limits of capitalism and nationalism, this would not come—if history was any guide—from the top. It would come through citizens' movements, educating, organizing, agitating, striking, boycotting, demonstrating, threatening those in power with disruption of the stability they needed."
For Zinn, political history and statesmen's history are useless for giving democracy "meaning." These are antiquarian, indeed reactionary, and must be displaced by social history that "threaten[s] those in power"; in effect, he replaces political history with politicized history. Writing history, therefore, takes on a new, revolutionary urgency. In "The Coming Revolt of the Guards," a chapter in A People's History, Zinn asks his readers to "imagine what radical change would require of us all." His answer is "utopian," he unapologetically explains:
Everyone could share the routine but necessary jobs for a few hours a day, and leave most of the time free for enjoyment, creativity, labors of love, and yet produce enough for an equal and ample distribution of goods. Certain basic things would be abundant enough to be taken out of the money system and be available— free—to everyone: food, housing, health care, education, transportation.
Later in the book he gives specific policy prescriptions, among them that free health care would be possible based on a 70-90% tax (merely "going back to the post-World War II level") on the "superrich" combined with aggressive "demilitarization."
* * *
Despite the absence of footnotes in A People's History, smart students will recognize Zinn's book as Marx for the masses. Zinn's popularity today has a certain irony inasmuch as the secondary schools typically employing Zinn's work are those at which tuition (much less food, housing, or health care) is far from free. Urban and suburban school districts trying to close "achievement gaps" increasingly have adopted Zinn's multicultural approach, as well. Many administrators and teachers believe that his dismissal of "white man's history" in favor of multiple minority perspectives will help minority students "believe in themselves" and care about academic success.
Contrary to the hopes of those who look to him as a unifying force, Zinn's arguments in A People's History do nothing to unite American citizens of any age. Instead, his Marxist confidence in the downward spiral of history suggests that America will be forever fractured— at least until the Revolution comes. The American Founders inherited the spirit of conquest by which the hemisphere was first subjugated by Columbus. "The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history," Zinn declares. Paying sarcastic tribute to the founders' "genius," he maintains that their system of national control was designed to keep women, ethnic minorities, and the poor in a perpetual state of subservience. The Constitution's framers (and every American generation since), he argues, neglected the "flaming radical language" of the Declaration of Independence, which in his mind mandates absolute egalitarianism.
Zinn's thesis is that the "elites" extend to "the people" just enough liberty to keep "the people" politically quiet. In the early republic, the wealthy bribed the middle class with financial benefits and political security; the middle class in turn provided "buffers against the blacks, the Indians, and the very poor whites." This system allows "the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law—all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity." Law and order, "patriotism and unity" are distractions established by the elite, who have been terrified that the underclass will awaken to the truth of "the competition and conniving that marked the spirit of Western capitalism." As he remarks about American race relations, "Only the radicals made an attempt to break the racial barriers: Socialists, Trotskyists, Communists most of all."
Fortunately for "the people," Zinn offers an end to their false consciousness. His angry tone gives way to rhapsody when he describes the achievements of the early U.S. labor movement. He hymns the members of the Industrial Workers of the World: "But their energy, their persistence, their inspiration to others, their ability to mobilize thousands at one place, one time, made them an influence on the country far beyond their numbers. They traveled everywhere (many were unemployed or migrant workers), they organized, wrote, spoke, sang, spread their message and their spirit."
It's easy to see how his call to revolutionary action might intoxicate young souls. It is a Manichean tale, told with fervor and an eye to youth's idealism. He promises "empowerment," an idea preached in many schools, colleges, and universities. Zinn gives students a critique of capitalism so persuasive that they easily might miss the telltale signs of a hackneyed conspiracy theory. He urges students to grasp the moral equivalency of ideas previously taught as intractably opposed, claiming for example, that the U.S. entered World War II mainly to aggrandize American interests. In its wake, we were no different from the regimes we defeated: "But what about fascism—as idea, as reality? Were its essential elements—militarism, racism, imperialism— now gone? Or were they absorbed into the already poisoned bones of the victors?"
Zinn answers his own questions, of course, and he presents the Cold War as a struggle between "empires of influence." His interpretation is consistent with his ideology, in which moral and political differences (he berates Democrats almost as much as Republicans) are subsumed in class differences. In his tidy tale of how the rich hate everyone else, Zinn assumes the mantle of chief spokesman for the oppressed. He writes not so much from historical hindsight as from historical omniscience. A good historian will spur questions and prod his readers to investigate his claims. Zinn does neither, but instead makes students fearful, distrusting, and ultimately despondent about the possibility of patriotism. Instead of emboldening them to do noble things out of admiration for the great people and deeds they have studied, his book only serves to embitter them about America.
* * *
Ray Raphael, a Zinn protégé and author of A People's History of the American Revolution (2002), is as cynical about political greatness as his teacher. Still, Raphael is cleverer than Zinn at packaging his product. Claiming to identify the real patriots in American history—the common people who started the Revolution—Raphael exposes what he calls "founding myths," which serves as the title of his latest book. These myths include the well-worn but untrue tales fabricated (mostly in the 19th century) to prop up early American elites and promote patriotism fashioned in their image. In Raphael's telling, Paul Revere was just one among many citizens who sounded the 1775 call to arms in Boston; Thomas Jefferson gets too much credit for drafting the Declaration, which really was the offshoot of popular radicalism; and George Washington and his men didn't suffer much at Valley Forge. In dispelling the myths around these figures and many others, Raphael claims to be acting out of concern for the past and the present. "Creatively, if not accurately, we have fashioned a past we would like to have had," he insists.
Raphael's primary targets are historians like David McCullough and Joseph Ellis whose work celebrates the American Founders. The real danger in their writings is the marginalization of the masses that, in fact, fought and won the American Revolution. "When we marginalize common people in the past, we learn how to marginalize common people in the present," Raphael asserts. "These conjured tales" about the leading founders, "watered down and whitewashed, argue against any recurrence of any event such as the American Revolution. We take comfort in our storybook nation." What we must do instead is shake things up: "The stories we tell inspire no radical views; they do no more than instill reverence for leaders and allegiances to the United States."
Whereas Zinn has little use for patriotism of any kind, Raphael actively challenges the naïve patriotism he calls "Founders' Chic" so that it can be replaced with a patriotism celebrating "the people." According to Raphael, for the people of early America, "There could never be too much democracy." Taking his cue from Zinn that the only democracy worth having is a radically leveling one, Raphael attempts to subvert the accomplishments of the leading political actors and thinkers of early America. In his retelling, the people were spontaneously combustible; they didn't need leaders. By the battles of Lexington and Concord, the people had already done all of the real work. "The United States was founded not by isolated acts of individual heroism but by the concerted revolutionary activities of people who had learned the power of working together." Any action by one of the "acquisitive snobs" (his term for the self-interested white elite) was but an epiphenomenon of collective action. "Deference and reverence," he concludes, "are strangely out of step with the rambunctious and assertive spirit of independence that drove the American Revolution forward." Forget about the founders, then; true patriotism demands Power to The People.
* * *
A Patriot's History of America is a very different kind of book, an extended response to Zinn and his epigones, written by Larry Schweikart, a history professor at the University of Dayton, and Michael Allen, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Washington, Tacoma. Even its subtitle, From Columbus's Great Discovery to the War on Terror, takes aim at Zinn, who would use the terms "great discovery" and "war on terror" only in scare quotes. Indeed, every page of Schweikart and Allen's textbook is full of statements that would make Zinn snarl. "America's past is a bright and shining light," the authors state in their introduction. "America was, and is, the city on the hill, the fountain of hope, the beacon of liberty." Every teacher and parent who has sorted through the piles of American history textbooks published in the last 30 years will know what a rare occasion it is to find a textbook with authors bold enough to affirm the old-fashioned patriotic sentiments held dear by so many Americans. With praise for America's founders, the religious and moral principles upon which the country was built, and the free market that has facilitated American prosperity, Schweikart and Allen's book reads much like civics and history textbooks used to.
A sound civics education was formerly understood as one of the major goals of primary and secondary education. Today all of the controversy about "character education" obscures the fact that every curriculum, whatever its composition, and every school, whatever its constitution, will ineluctably shape the character of its students. Schweikart and Allen acknowledge that "character counts," and understand that history offers innumerable opportunities for impressing upon students the importance of cultivating the virtues that make for good character. This is not a quest for "self-esteem," but rather a striving for individual excellence that when achieved can contribute to the common good.
Schweikart and Allen are not afraid to name heroes and villains in their survey of American history. Their leading hero is Abraham Lincoln. Above all other presidents—perhaps above all other Americans—he possessed the most noble character, and an unmatched political skill. Their portrait of Lincoln is well done, and errs only in its attempt to prove that Lincoln was a Christian (the quotations they adduce are mostly from non-contemporaneous accounts of Lincoln's "conversion"; the secondary sources they use are unreliable). But this overreaching is an exception, for their accounts of George Washington's heroism and Ronald Reagan's statesmanship are apt (the authors also admire Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge). By contrast, Andrew Jackson had poor character and political judgment, in the authors' estimation, and his presidency was a failure. Their treatment of Jackson's unjust policies against Indians, and their presentation of the overall problems in America's treatment of Indians, are balanced. Unlike Zinn, who demonizes Columbus, the co-authors of A Patriot's History see in the story of European settlement a mix of good and evil intentions and results.
In this careful approach, A Patriot's History gives students an example of honest historical inquiry. "Foundations for English Success in the New World: A Hypothesis," for example, is one of the early headings in the first chapter, titled "The City on the Hill, 1492-1707." Hypothesizing helps students learn that history is an inquiry—not an ideology. Their major hypothesis in the book responds to a simple query: What makes America great? Their answer, confident but not jingoistic, leaves room for debate. They don't just presume that America is great, they provide an argument. This makes the textbook a fine teaching tool. They propose that the cause of American greatness can be found in Americans' deeply-held religious beliefs, which in turn yielded a moral capital that has sustained the greatest economy the world has seen. We have fought to sustain our religious, civil, and economic liberty. This doesn't entail, "my country, right or wrong," as the authors concede, but neither does it entail "my country, always wrong!"
While Schweikart and Allen give due recognition to the importance of popular religious history, their account could be improved by a more discerning account of the relationship of natural rights to religious liberty. A Patriot's History is strongest when interweaving economic history with political narrative, particularly in its tales of entrepreneurial innovation, and when combating the usual bias against great American industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. The book gives short shrift to constitutional law; the authors' conflation of judicial review with judicial supremacy is simply incorrect.
They miss an opportunity, as well, to respond more forcefully to the typical textbook's rabid denunciation of the founders on the issue of slavery. This is particularly true in the case of Thomas Jefferson, about whom they write, "Jefferson's commitment to ending slavery may be more suspect than Washington's, or certainly, Franklin's." This doesn't fit with their broader argument about the founders and slavery. Elsewhere, the authors characterize Jefferson's "ideals" as "libertarian." These "libertarian ideals" they equate with "the ideals of the American Revolution." In another section, they identify the Revolutionary Whigs as "creating a government with an array of strong principles grounded in localism, egalitarianism, and libertarianism expressed through written constitutions, and constrained by separation of powers, legislative dominance, and direct representation." The latter principles distinguish the authors' generally accurate portrait of early American history from those, like Zinn and Raphael, who invoke only nebulous ideas of localism and egalitarianism. (Schweikart and Allen never define what they mean by libertarianism, alas, so their introduction of it as a bedrock principle confuses matters a bit.)
In 1818, John Adams (another hero in A Patriot's History) was asked to define the American Revolution. He answered, "This radi[c]al Change in the Principles, Opinions, Sentiments and Affections of the People, was the real American Revolution." By characterizing the change in America as "radical," Adams did not mean that the founders desired to change human nature. Rather, they wanted to build a regime based upon the radical idea that rights, granted by God, must be secured by government. "The Revolution," Adams said, "was in the Minds and Hearts of the People." American history at its best should remind us of that truth.