A People's History of the United States

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A People's History of the United States
2003 hardcover edition
AuthorHoward Zinn
CountryUnited States
SeriesA People's History
SubjectAmerican history, American politics, American foreign policy, American economics
PublisherHarper & Row; HarperCollins
Publication date
1980 (1st edition); 2009 (most recent edition)
Media typePrint
Pages729 pp (2003 edition)
LC ClassE178 .Z75 2003

A People's History of the United States is a 1980 non-fiction book by American historian and political scientist Howard Zinn. In the book, Zinn presented what he considered to be a different side of history from the more traditional "fundamental nationalist glorification of country".[1] Zinn portrays a side of American history that can largely be seen as the exploitation and manipulation of the majority by rigged systems that hugely favor a small aggregate of elite rulers from across the orthodox political parties.

A People's History has been assigned as reading in many high schools and colleges across the United States.[2] It has also resulted in a change in the focus of historical work, which now includes stories that previously were ignored.[1] The book was a runner-up in 1980 for the National Book Award. It frequently has been revised, with the most recent edition covering events through 2005. In 2003, Zinn was awarded the Prix des Amis du Monde Diplomatique for the French version of this book Une histoire populaire des États-Unis.[3] More than two million copies have been sold.

In a 1998 interview, Zinn said he had set "quiet revolution" as his goal for writing A People's History. "Not a revolution in the classical sense of a seizure of power, but rather from people beginning to take power from within the institutions. In the workplace, the workers would take power to control the conditions of their lives."[4] In 2004, Zinn edited a primary source companion volume with Anthony Arnove, entitled Voices of a People's History of the United States.

A People's History of the United States has been criticized by various pundits and fellow historians. Critics, including professor Chris Beneke and Randall J. Stephens,[5] assert blatant omissions of important historical episodes, uncritical reliance on biased sources, and failure to examine opposing views.[6][7]


In a letter responding to a 2007 critical review of his A Young People's History of the United States (a release of the title for younger readers) in The New York Times Book Review, Zinn wrote:

My history ... describes the inspiring struggle of those who have fought slavery and racism (Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses), of the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of working people (Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, César Chávez), of the socialists and others who have protested war and militarism (Eugene V. Debs, Helen Keller, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, Cindy Sheehan). My hero is not Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and congratulated a general after a massacre of Filipino villagers at the turn of the century, but Mark Twain, who denounced the massacre and satirized imperialism.[8][9] I want young people to understand that ours is a beautiful country, but it has been taken over by men who have no respect for human rights or constitutional liberties. Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which says that all of us have an equal right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality—and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that.[10]

Critical reception[edit]

When A People's History of the United States was published in 1980, future Columbia University historian Eric Foner reviewed it in The New York Times:

Professor Zinn writes with an enthusiasm rarely encountered in the leaden prose of academic history, and his text is studded with telling quotations from labor leaders, war resisters and fugitive slaves. There are vivid descriptions of events that are usually ignored, such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the brutal suppression of the Philippine independence movement at the turn of this century. Professor Zinn's chapter on Vietnam—bringing to life once again the free-fire zones, secret bombings, massacres and cover-ups—should be required reading for a new generation of students now facing conscription. Nonetheless, A People's History reflects a deeply pessimistic vision of the American experience ... Uprisings are either crushed, deflected or co-opted ... Why such movements so often fail to achieve their goals is never adequately explained ... The portrayal of these anonymous Americans, moreover, is strangely circumscribed. Blacks, Indians, women, and laborers appear either as rebels or as victims. Less dramatic but more typical lives—people struggling to survive with dignity in difficult circumstances—receive little attention. Nor does Professor Zinn stop to explore the ideologies that inspired the various uprisings he details.

Foner continues by remarking that "history from the bottom up, though necessary as a corrective, is as limited in its own way as history from the top down." What is necessary, Foner asserts, is "an integrated account incorporating Thomas Jefferson and his slaves, Andrew Jackson and the Indians, Woodrow Wilson and the Wobblies, in a continuous historical process, in which each group's experience is shaped in large measure by its relation to others."[11]

Writing in The New York Times, columnist Bob Herbert wrote:

Mr. Zinn was often taken to task for peeling back the rosy veneer of much of American history to reveal sordid realities that had remained hidden for too long.[12]

Herbert quotes from Zinn's account of the presidency of Andrew Jackson as an example of what he means.[12]

Also writing for The New York Times, columnist Michael Powell praised the text's impact on changing the perspective of modern histories:

To describe it as a revisionist account is to risk understatement. A conventional historical account held no allure; he concentrated on what he saw as the genocidal depredations of Christopher Columbus, the blood lust of Theodore Roosevelt and the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln. He also shined an insistent light on the revolutionary struggles of impoverished farmers, feminists, laborers and resisters of slavery and war. Such stories are more often recounted in textbooks today; they were not at the time.[13]

Writing in Dissent, Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin argued that Zinn is too focused on class conflict, and wrongly attributes sinister motives to the American political elite. He characterized the book as an overly simplistic narrative of elite villains and oppressed people, with no attempt to understand historical actors in the context of the time in which they lived. Kazin wrote:

The ironic effect of such portraits of rulers is to rob 'the people' of cultural richness and variety, characteristics that might gain the respect and not just the sympathy of contemporary readers. For Zinn, ordinary Americans seem to live only to fight the rich and haughty and, inevitably, to be fooled by them.[14]

Kazin argued that A People's History fails to explain why the American political-economic model continues to attract millions of minorities, women, workers, and immigrants, or why the socialist and radical political movements Zinn favors have failed to gain widespread support among the American public.[note 1]

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Christopher Phelps, associate professor of American studies in the School of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham wrote:

Professional historians have often viewed Zinn's work with exasperation or condescension, and Zinn was no innocent in the dynamic. I stood against the wall for a Zinn talk at the University of Oregon around the time of the 1992 Columbus Quincentenary. Listening to Zinn, one would have thought historians still considered Samuel Eliot Morison's 1955 book on Columbus to be definitive. The crowd lapped it up, but Zinn knew better. He missed a chance to explain how the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s have transformed the writing and teaching of history, how his People's History did not spring out of thin air but was an effort to synthesize a widely shared shift in historical sensibilities. Zinn's historical theorizing, conflating objectivity with neutrality and position with bias, was no better. The critics would be churlish, however, not to acknowledge the moving example Zinn set in the civil-rights and Vietnam movements, and they would be remiss not to note the value of A People's History, along with its limitations. Zinn told tales well, stories that, while familiar to historians, often remained unknown to wider publics. He challenged national pieties and encouraged critical reflection about received wisdom. He understood that America's various radicalisms, far from being "un-American," have propelled the nation toward more humane and democratic arrangements. And he sold two-million copies of a work of history in a culture that is increasingly unwilling to read and, consequently, unable to imagine its past very well.[16]

In The New York Times Book Review in a review of A Young People's History Of The United States, volumes 1 and 2, novelist Walter Kirn wrote:

That America is not a better place—that it finds itself almost globally despised, mired in war, self-doubt and random violence—is also a fact, of course, but not one that Zinn's brand of history seems equal to. His stick-figure pageant of capitalist cupidity can account, in its fashion, for terrorism—as when, in the second volume, subtitled "Class Struggle to the War on Terror," he notes that Sept. 11 was an assault on "symbols of American wealth and power"—but it doesn't address the themes of religious zealotry, technological change and cultural confusion that animate what I was taught in high school to label "current events" but that contemporary students may as well just call "the weirdness." The line from Columbus to Columbine, from the first Independence Day to the Internet, and from the Boston Tea Party to Baghdad is a wandering line, not a party line. As for the "new possibilities" it points to, I can't see them clearly.[7]

Professors Michael Kazin and Michael Kammen condemn the book as a black-and-white story of elite villains and oppressed victims, a story that robs American history of its depth and intricacy and leaves nothing but an empty text simplified to the level of propaganda.[14][17]

Other editions and related works[edit]

A version of the book titled The Twentieth Century contains only chapters 12–25 ("The Empire and the People" to "The 2000 Election and the 'War on Terrorism'"). Although it was originally meant to be an expansion of the original book, recent editions of A People's History now contain all of the later chapters from it.

In 2004, Zinn and Anthony Arnove published a collection of more than 200 primary source documents titled Voices of a People's History of the United States, available both as a book and as a CD of dramatic readings. Writer Aaron Sarver notes that although Kazin "savaged" Zinn's A People's History of the United States, "one of the few concessions Kazin made was his approval of Zinn punctuating 'his narrative with hundreds of quotes from slaves and Populists, anonymous wage-earners and ... articulate radicals'".[18]

Whether Zinn intended it or not, Voices serves as a useful response to Kazin's critique. As Sarver observes, "Voices is a vast anthology that tells heartbreaking and uplifting stories of American history. Kazin will be hard-pressed to charge Zinn with politicizing the intelligence here; the volume offers only Zinn's sparse introductions to each piece, letting the actors and their words speak for themselves."[18]

In 2008, Zinn worked with Mike Konopacki and Paul Buhle on creating A People's History of American Empire, a graphic novel that covers various historic subjects drawn from A People's History of the United States as well as Zinn's own history of his involvement in activism and historic events as covered in his autobiography You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

Zinn worked as the editor for a series of books under the A People's History label. This series expands upon the issues and historic events covered in A People's History of the United States by giving them in-depth coverage, and also covers the history of parts of the world outside the United States. These books include:[citation needed]

  • A People's History of the Supreme Court by Peter Irons with Foreword by Zinn [19]
  • A People's History of Sports in the United States by Dave Zirin with an introduction by Howard Zinn
  • A People's History of American Empire by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, and Paul Buhle
  • The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World by Vijay Prashad
  • A People's History of the American Revolution by Ray Raphael
  • A People's History of the Civil War by David Williams
  • A People's History of the Vietnam War by Jonathan Neale
  • The Mexican Revolution: A People's History by Adolfo Gilly

Likewise, other books were inspired by the series:

  • A People's History of Australia from 1788 to the Present edited by Verity Burgmann. A four-volume series that looks at Australian history thematically, not chronologically.
  • A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks by Clifford D Connor.
  • A People's History of the World by Chris Harman. It is endorsed by Zinn.
  • A People's History of Christianity by Diana Butler Bass.
  • A People's History of Modern Europe by William A. Pelz

Younger readers' version[edit]

In July 2007 Seven Stories Press released A Young People's History of the United States, an illustrated, two-volume adaptation of A People's History for young adult readers (ages 10–14). The new version, adapted from the original text by Rebecca Stefoff, is updated through the end of 2006, and includes a new introduction and afterword by Zinn.

In his introduction, Zinn writes, "It seems to me it is wrong to treat young readers as if they are not mature enough to look at their nation's policies honestly. I am not worried about disillusioning young people by pointing to the flaws in the traditional heroes." In the afterword, "Rise like lions", he asks young readers to "Imagine the American people united for the first time in a movement for fundamental change."

In addition, the New Press released an updated (2007) version of The Wall Charts for A People's History—a 2-piece fold-out poster featuring an illustrated timeline of U.S. history, with an explanatory booklet.

Lessons for the classroom[edit]

In 2008, the Zinn Education Project was launched to promote and support the use of A People's History of the United States (and other materials) for teaching in middle and high school classrooms across the U.S. The goal of the project is to give American students Zinn's version of U.S. history.[20] With funds from an anonymous donor who had been a student of Zinn's, the project began by distributing 4,000 packets to teachers in all states and territories. The project now offers teaching guides and bibliographies that can be freely downloaded.[21]

Current editions[edit]

  • Zinn, Howard (2005). A People's History of the United States: 1492–present. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. ISBN 0-06-083865-5.
  • Zinn, Howard (2003). A People's History of the United States: 1492–present (3rd ed.). HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-052842-7.
  • Zinn, Howard (1999). A People's History of the United States: 1492–present. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-019448-0.
  • Zinn, Howard (1995). A People's History of the United States: 1492–present (2nd ed.). HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-092643-0.
  • Zinn, Howard (1980). A People's History of the United States (1st ed.). Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-014803-9.
  • Zinn, Howard (2003). The Twentieth Century. Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-053034-0
  • Zinn, Howard (2005). Arnove, Anthony (ed.). Voices of a People's History of the United States. Seven Stories Press. ISBN 1-58322-628-1.
  • A Young People's History of the United States, adapted from the original text by Rebecca Stefoff; illustrated, in two volumes; Seven Stories Press, New York, 2007
  • Teaching Editions
    • A People's History of the United States: Teaching Edition
    • A People's History of the United States, Abridged Teaching Edition, Updated Edition
    • A People's History of the United States: Volume 1: American Beginnings to Reconstruction, Teaching Edition
    • A People's History of the United States, Vol. 2: The Civil War to the Present, Teaching Edition
  • A People's History of the United States: The Wall Charts; designed by Howard Zinn and George Kirschner; New Press (2007). ISBN 978-1-56584-171-0

See also[edit]


  1. ^ While Zinn may have failed to explain this second fact in his book on why there has never been a widespread radical left in America, he responded to a similar point in a lecture he gave at MIT in 2005.[15]


  1. ^ a b Howard Powell (January 27, 2010). "Howard Zinn, Historian, Dies at 87". The New York Times. Mr. Zinn, delighted in ... lancing what he considered platitudes, not the least that American history was a heroic march toward democracy ..."Our nation had gone through an awful lot – the Vietnam War, civil rights, Watergate – yet the textbooks offered the same fundamental nationalist glorification of country," Mr. Zinn recalled in an interview with The New York Times. "I got the sense that people were hungry for a different, more honest take."
  2. ^ Adele Ferguson (October 5, 2005). "Controversy brews over school textbook". The Arlington Times. p. A7.
  3. ^ Prix des Amis du Monde diplomatique 2003 announcement, December 1, 2003.
  4. ^ Catherine Parayre,"The Conscience of the Past: An interview with historian Howard Zinn". Archived from the original on May 25, 2001. Retrieved February 15, 2006. , Flagpole Magazine Online, 18 February 1998.
  5. ^ Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens, "Lies the Debunkers Told Me: How Bad History Books Win Us Over", The Atlantic, 24 July 2012. Retrieved 18 September 2020.
  6. ^ Handlin, Oscar (Autumn 1980). "Arawaks". The American Scholar. 49 (4): 546–550. JSTOR 41210677.
  7. ^ a b Kirn, Walter (June 17, 2007). "Children's Books". The New York Times.
  8. ^ "Mark Twain". October 10, 2006. Archived from the original on October 10, 2006.
  9. ^ "Comments on the Moro Massacre by Mark Twain (March 12, 1906)". Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs (CULMA), Wayne State University. Archived from the original on December 28, 2005.
  10. ^ Howard Zinn (July 1, 2007). "Making History". The New York Times. Retrieved November 14, 2010.
  11. ^ Foner, Eric, "Majority Report", New York Times Book Review, March 2, 1980, pp. BR3–BR4.
  12. ^ a b Herbert, Bob (January 30, 2010). "A Radical Treasure". The New York Times. Retrieved November 21, 2018.
  13. ^ "Howard Zinn, Historian, Dies at 87" by Howard Powell in The New York Times January 30, 2010
  14. ^ a b "Howard Zinn's History Lessons", by Michael Kazin, Dissent, Spring 2004
  15. ^ "The Myth of American Exceptionalism"; see 1:29:19
  16. ^ Phelps, Christopher (February 1, 2010). "Howard Zinn, Philosopher" – via The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  17. ^ Kammen, Michael (March 23, 1980). "How the Other Half Lived". Washington Post Book World. Washington Post. p. 7. Retrieved August 10, 2011.
  18. ^ a b Aaron Sarver, The Secret History", In These Times, 16 September 2005
  19. ^ "Tables of Contents for A People's History of the Supreme Court".
  20. ^ Mulcahy, Cara M. (2010). Marginalized Literacies: Critical Literacy in the Language Arts Classroom. IAP. pp. 125–126. ISBN 978-1-60752-454-0.
  21. ^ The Social Studies Professional. National Council for the Social Studies (204–208): 19–22. 2008.CS1 maint: untitled periodical (link)

External links[edit]