Must Read Books:
A People's History of the United States

A People's History of the United States. by Howard Zinn. NY: Harper & Row, 1980.

Note: The following are notes from the above book. I found the book seminal, eye-opening, life-changing. I recommend that you buy and read the entire book. Only by reading the entire book will you get the whole picture. The following quotes, I hope, will whet your appetite. --Colby Glass


Indians | Women | Mexican War | Slavery | Civil War
The Other Civil War | Robber Barons | Social Darwinism | Education & Orthodoxy
Populist Movement | American Imperialism

The Royalty of Spain "promised Columbus 10 percent of the profits, governorship over new-found lands, and the fame that would go with a new title: Admiral of the Ocean Sea... on October 12, a sailor called Rodrigo saw the early morning moon shining on white sands, and cried out.. It was an island in the Bahamas, the Caribbean sea. The first man to sight land was supposed to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life, but Rodrigo never got it. Columbus claimed he had seen a light the evening before. he got the reward" (2).

"In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead." Within 50 years they were entirely extinct (7).

"To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves --unwittingly--to justify what was done... the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress.. is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts.." (9).

"..this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest" (10).

"What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots" (11).


"...Look.. at what hapened to land confiscated from fleeing Loylaists. It was distributed in such a way as to give a double opportunity to the Revolutionary leaders: to enrich themselves and their friends, and to parcel out some land to small farmers to create a broad base of support for the new government. Indeed, this became characteristic of the new nation: finding itself possessed of enormous wealth, it could create the richest ruling class in history, and still have enough for the middle classes to act as a buffer between the rich and the dispossessed" (83).

"The huge landholdings of the Loyalists had been one of the great incentives to Revolution" (83).

"Edmund Morgan sums up the class nature of the Revolution this way: "The fact that the lower ranks were involved in the contest should not obscure the fact that the contest itself was generally a struggle for office and power between members of an upper class: the new against the established"" (83).

Charles Beard... in his book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution.. He found that a majority of [the fifty-five men who drew up the Constitution] were lawyers.. were men of wealth.. Four groups.. were not represented in the Constitutional Convention: slaves, indentured servants, women, men without property" (89-90).


Shay's Rebellion -- the costs of the Revolution, excessive taxes, and a refusal to issue paper money, meant that farmers were having a difficult time paying their debts. Their cattle and land was being sold out from under them. The result was an uprising of thousands against the Legislature in Boston (90-92). "..at courthouses in Worcester and Athol, farmers with guns prevented the courts from meeting to take away their property and the militia were too sympathetic to the farmers.. to act" (91).

"The problem went beyond Massachusetts. In Rhode Island, the debtors had taken over the legislature and were issuing paper money. In New Hampshire, several hundred men, in September of 1786, surrounded the legislature in Exeter, asking that taxes be returned and paper money issued..." (92).

"Sam Adams helped draw up a Riot Act, and a resolution suspending habeas corpus, to allow the authorities to keep people in jail without trial" (93). Many rebels were put on trial, some were hanged (94).


The Intimately Oppressed

"It is possible, reading standard histories, to forget half the population of the country... the overlooking of women, is a sign of their submerged status" (102).

"Societies based on private property and competition, in which monogamous families became practical units for work and socialization, found it especially useful to establish this special status of women, something akin to a house slave in the matter of intimacy and oppression" (102).

A father, writing in The Spectator, expressed the common view: "I look upon my family as a patriarchal sovereignty in which I am myself both king and priest" (106).

"A best-selling "pocket book," published in London, was widely read in the American colonies in the 1700s. It was called Advice to a Daughter:

"..Men, who were to be the Law-givers, had the larger share of Reason bestow'd upon them... your Sex is the better prepar'd for.. Compliance... Your Sex wanteth our Reason for your Conduct, and our Strength for your Protection: Our wanteth your Gentleness to soften, and to entertain us..."" (107)

"Edmund Burke [wrote] in his Reflections on the Revolution in France that "a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order"" (110).

"Literacy among women doubled between 1780 and 1840. Women became health reformers. They formed movements against double standards in sexual behavior and the victimization of prostitutes. They joined in religious organizations. Some of the most powerful of them joined the anti-slavery movement. So, by the time a clear feminist movement emerged in the 1840s, women had become practiced organizers, agitators, speakers" (116).

"Margaret Fuller was perhaps the most formidable intellectual among the feminists. Her starting point, in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, was the understanding that "there exists in the minds of men a tone of feeling toward woman as toward slaves..."" (119).

"Women put in enormous work in antislavery societies... In 1840, a World Anti-Slavery Society Convention met in London. After a fierce argument, it was voted to exclude women, but it was agreed they could attend meetings in a curtained enclosure. The women sat in silent protest in the gallery, and William Lloyd Garrison, one abolitionist who had fought for the rights of women, sat with them...

"It was at that time that Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott and others, and began to lay the plans that led to the first Women's Rights Convention in history. It was held at Seneca Falls, New York, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton lived as a mother, a housewife, full of resentment at her condition, declaring: "A woman is a nobody. A wife is everything"" (121).


As Long As Grass Grows or Water Runs

"..Indian Removal, as it has been politely called... was necessary for the opening of the vast American lands to agriculture, to commerce, to markets, to money, to the development of the modern capitalist economy" (124-5).

"...after the Revolution, huge sections of land were bought up by rich speculators, including George Washington and Patrick Henry" (125).

"[Andrew] Jackson was a land speculator, merchant, slave trader, and the most aggressive enemy of the Indians in early American history" (125).

A part of the purpose of the War of 1812 was to push back the Indians. After repeated lies and massacres, the Indians were asked to move to the other side of the Mississippi. In Jackson's words, "There, beyond the limits of any State, in possession of land of their own, which they shall possess as long as Grass grows or water runs. I am and will protect them and be their friend and father" (132).

"That phrase "as long as Grass grows or water runs" was to be recalled with bitterness by generations of Indians. (An Indian GI, veteran of Vietnam, testifying publicly in 1970 not only about the horror of the war but [also] about his own maltreatment as an Indian, repeated that phrase and began to weep)" (133).

"According to Van Every, just before Jackson became President, in the 1820s, after the tumult of the War of 1812 and the Creek War, the southern Indians and the whites had settled down, often very close to one another, and were living in peace in a natural environment which seemed to have enough for all of them. They began to see common problems. Friendships developed. White men were allowed to visit Indian communities and Indians often were guests in white homes. Frontier figures like Davy Crockett and Sam Houston came out of this setting, and both -- unlike Jackson -- became lifelong friends of the Indian.

"The forces that led to removal did not come, Van Every insists, from the poor white frontiersmen who were neighbors of the Indians. They came from industrialization and commerce, the growth of populations, of railroads and cities, the rise in value of land, and the greed of businessmen. "Party managers and land speculators manipulated the growing excitement... Press and pulpit whipped up the frenzy." Out of that frenzy the Indians were to end up dead or exiled, the land speculators richer, the politicians more powerful" (135).


We Take Nothing by Conquest

Polk sent troops into Mexican territory illegally. One soldier was shot by Mexicans and Polk indignantly demanded that Congress declare war -- "As war exists, notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself, we are called upon by every consideration of duty and patriotism to vindicate with decision the honor, the rights, and the interests of our country"" (150).

John Schroeder, an historian, says, "Indeed, the reverse was true; President Polk had incited war by sending American soldiers into what was disputed territory, historically controlled and inhabited by Mexicans" (150).

[The traditional border of Texas had been the Nueces River. Soldiers were sent by Polk to occupy the Rio Grande.]

Abraham Lincoln, congressman from Illinois, said, "the war was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President" (151).

"Accompanying all this aggressiveness was the idea that the United States would be giving the blessings of liberty and democracy to more people. This was intermingled with ideas of racial superiority..." (152).

The doctrine of "manifest destiny" introduced God into the situation.

"The American Anti-Slavery Society, on the other hand, said the war was "waged solely for the detestable and horrible purpose of extending and perpetuating American slavery throughout the vast territory of Mexico"" (153).

"The war had barely begun, the summer of 1846, when a writer, Henry David Thoreau, who lived in Concord, Massachusestts, refused to pay his Massachussetts poll tax, denouncing the Mexican war. He was put in jail and spent one night there... [he later wrote], "A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers... marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences.."

"When Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, "What are you doing in there?" it was reported that Thoreau replied, "What are you doing out there?"

"The churches, for the most part, were either outspokenly for the war, or timidly silent. Generally, no one but the Congregational, Quaker, and Unitarian churches spoke clearly against the war" (154).

"...racism.. was widespread. Congressman Delano of Ohio.. opposed the war because he was afraid of Americans mingling with an inferior people who "embrace all shades of color... a sad compound of Spanish, English, Indian, and negro bloods... resulting, it is said, in the production of a slothful, ignorant race of beings"" (155).

"Considering the strenuous efforts of the nation's leaders to build patriotic support, the amount of open dissent and criticism was remarkable. Antiwar meetings took place in spite of attacks by patriotic mobs" (155).

"Frederick Douglass, former slave, extraordinary speaker and writer, wrote [of] "the present disgraceful, cruel, and iniquitous war..." Douglass was scornful of the unwillingness of opponents of the war to take real action (even the abolitionists kept paying their taxes): "The determination of our slaveholding President to prosecute the war... is made evident.. by the puny opposition arrayed against him. No politican... seems willing to hazard his popularity with his party... by an open and unqualified disapprobation of the war. None seem willing to take their stand for peace..."" (155).

"...many [American soldiers] deserted to the Mexican side, enticed by money. Some enlisted in the Mexican army and formed their own battalion, the San Patricio (St. Patrick's) Battalion" (158).

"Posters appealed for volunteers... one young man wrote anonymously to the Cambridge Chronicle:

"I have no wish to participate in such "glorious" butcheries of women and children as were displayed in the capture of Monterey, etc. Neither have I any desire to place myself under the dictation of a petty military tyrant, to every caprice of whose will I must yield implicit obedience. No sir-ee! As long as I can work, beg, or go to the poor house... I won't... Human butchery has had its day... And the time is rapidly approaching when the professional soldier will be placed on the same level as a bandit, the Bedouin, and the Thug"" (158).

"It was a war of the American elite against the Mexican elite, each side exhorting, using, killing its own population as well as the other" (164).

An infantry lieutenant, seeing numerous atrocities in the battle for Mexico City, wrote his parents: "Such a scene I never hope to see again. It gave me a lamentable view of human nature... and made me for the first time ashamed of my country" (165).


Emancipation Without Freedom

"In 1859, John Brown was hanged, with federal complicity, for attempting to do by small-scale violence what Lincoln would do by large-scale violence several years later -- end slavery" (167).

"With slavery abolished by order of the government... its end could be orchestrated so as to set limits to emancipation. Liberation frm the top would go only so far as the interests of the dominant groups permitted... Thus.. it was not a radical reconstruction, but a safe one -- in fact, a profitable one" (167).

Frederick Douglass wrote on the Fourth of July, 1852, his Independence Day address:

"To [the slave] your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States... for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without rival" (178).

In an 1849 letter to a white abolitionist, Douglass wrote:

"The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of struggle... Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground... Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.." (179).

The concern of the federal government of the U.S. was control. "It would end slavery only under conditions controlled by whitese, and only when required by the political and economic needs of the business elite of the North. It was Abraham Lincoln who combined perfectly the needs of business, the political ambition of the new Republican party, and the rhetoric of humanitarianism" (182).

In 1858 in Illinois, "Lincoln told his audience:

"I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races (applause); that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.

"And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race"" (184).


Reason Behind the Civil War

"Behind the secession of the South from the Union, after Lincoln was elected President in the fall of 1860 as candidate of the new Republican party, was a long series of policy clashes between South and North. The clash was not over slavery as a moral institution -- most northerners did not care enough about slavery to make sacrifices for it, certainly not the sacrifice of war. It was not a clash of peoples (most northern whites were not economically favored, not politically powerful; most southern whites were poor farmers, not decision makers) but of elites. The northern elite wanted economic expansion -- free land, free labor, a free market, a high protective tariff for manufacturers, a bank of the United States. The slave interests opposed all that; they saw Lincoln and the Republicans as making continuation of their pleasant and prosperous way of life impossible in the future.

"So when Lincoln was elected, seven southern states seceded from the Union... " (184).

"It was only as the war grew more bitter, the casualties mounted, desparation to win heightened, and the criticism of the abolitionists threatened to unravel the tattered coalition behind Lincoln that he began to act against slavery" (184-5).

"When in September 1862, Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, it was a military move, giving the South four months to stop rebelling, threatening to emancipate their slaves if they continued to fight, promising to leave slavery untouched in states that came over to the North..." (187).

"The London Spectator wrote concisely: "The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States"" (187).

"Limited as it was, the Emancipation Proclamation spurred antislavery forces. By the summer of 1864, 400,000 signatures asking for legislation to end slavery had been gathered and sent to Congress, something unprecedented in the history of the country [like 4 million signatures today]. That April, the Senate had adopted the Thirteenth Amendment, declaring an end to slavery, and in January 1865, the House of Representatives followed" (187).

"The Civil War was one of the bloodiest in human history up to that time: 600,000 dead on both sides, in a population of 30 million -- the equivalent in the United Statees of 1978, with a population of 250 million, of 5 million dead" (187-188).

"Many Negroes understood that their status after the war, whatever their situation legally, would depend on whether they owned the land they worked on or would be forced to be semislaves for others" (192).

"Abandoned plantations, however, were leased to former planters, and to white men of the North" (192).

"Under Congressional policy approved by Lincoln, the property confiscated during the war under the Confiscation Act of July 1862 would revert to the jeirs of the Confederate owners" (192).

"The American government had set out to fight the slave states in 1861, not to end slavery, but to retain the enormous national territory and market and resources" (193).

The abolitionist movement, the Freedman's Bureau, the "carpetbaggers," the Republican party (hoping for black votes) all constituted a tremendous pressure on public policy.

"The result was that brief period after the Civil War in which southern Negroes voted, elected blacks to state legislatures and to Congress, introduced free and racially mixed public education to the South" (193).

Congress was passing more and more laws which protected the blacks. "With these laws, with the Union Army in the South as protection, and a civilian army of officials in the Freedman's Bureau to help them, southern Negroes came forward, voted, formed political organizations, and expressed themselves forcefully on issues important to them" (194).

What changed all this was Andrew Johnson, "who became President when Lincoln was assassinated at the close of the war. Johnson vetoed bills to help Negroes; he made it easy for Confederate states to come back into the Union without guaranteeing equal rights to blacks. During his presidency, these returned southern states enacted "black codes," which made the freed slaves like serfs, still working the plantations" (194).

Johnson was impeached in 1868, but the Senate fell one vote short for removing him from office.

Interesting black leaders in the postwar south were:

"The southern white oligarchy used its economic power to organize the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups. Northern politicians began to weigh the advantage of the political support of impoverished blacks -- maintained in voting and office only by force -- against the more stable situation of a South returned to white supremacy..." (198).

"As white violence rose in the 1870s, the national government, even under President Grant, became less enthusiastic about defending blacks... The Supreme Court.. began interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment -- passed presumably for racial equality -- in a way that made it impotent for this purpose. In 1883, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, outlawing discrimination against Negroes using public facilities, was nullified by the Supreme Court... " (199).

"...the mood of the Court reflected a new coalition of norther industrialists and southern businessmen/planters" (200).

This coalition really took power in 1877 by rigging the election of Rutherford Hayes. In return, they got the removal of the "Union troops from the South, the last military obstacle to the re-establishment of white supremacy" (200. In addition, the southern elite got government funding for railroads, harbor improvement, flood control, and land. The poor white farmers of the south were convinced to help lobby for these federal programs -- "not knowing yet how these would be used not to help them but to exploit them" (201).

"...as the first act of the new North-South capitalist cooperation, the Southern Homestead Act, which had reserved all federal lands -- one-third of the area of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi -- for farmers who would work the land, was repealed. This enabled absentee speculators and lumbermen to move in and buy up much of this land" (201).

In the south, Negro farm laborers and poor white laborers were not paid a living wage. And they were not paid in cash, but in "orders" which could only be used at the store owned by the planter. This was a system of fraud which kept the blacks constantly in debt and tied to the planter's employment (204).

"[W.E.B.] DuBois saw this new capitalism as part of a process of exploitation and bribery taking place in all the "civilized" countries of the world... Was DuBois right -- that in that growth of American capitalism before and after the Civil War, whites as well as blacks were in some sense becoming slaves?" (205).

More Zinn quotes


Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS

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