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History On The Political Spectrum
It’s widely believed that history is history, no one can spin it to fit a political ideology and that historians are largely unbiased. A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen and A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present by Howard Zinn directly contradict that. There are several questions that come to mind when it comes to comparing these texts, but the focus in this paper will be the primary arguments on Columbus and Native Americans as well as the Declaration of Independence and who they portray as heroes and villains in the American story.
In the opening chapters of A Patriot’s History, Schweikart and Allen try to tell a story of “American greatness” by talking about various businesses, individuals and economic successes of the colonial Americans. They put the spotlight on the colonies and how each of them prospered. Schweikart and Allen constantly compare economic ideas and policies like how they put Thomas Jefferson and the Anti-Federalists against Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists (Schweikart and Allen 71). Allen and Schweikart think that the way Columbus has been demonized is unfair and that he deserves more credit as they provide a list of reasons why the notion that Columbus “killed all the Indians” should be challenged (Schweikart and Allen 16-17). They also argue that Native civilization was declining and that historians shouldn’t blame Columbus (Schweikart and Allen 17).
A People’s History puts the spotlight on a completely different group of people. Zinn immediately referenced a letter where Columbus expressed his desire to use all of the native Arawaks as servants, saying “They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” (Zinn 4). He also spent more time focusing on the pushback to the invasion by introducing Bartolome de las Cases, a young Spanish priest who vehemently disagreed with his countrymen (Zinn 7-9). Zinn argues that Columbus should no longer be remembered as a hero (Zinn 9-10). When it comes to the topic of Christopher Columbus, one fundamental thing Allen, Schweikart and Zinn do agree on is that Columbus did not discover that the Earth is round. However, neither text casts the Native Americans in a negative light. Zinn believes that the Natives are the true heroes of the American story as he constantly looks at the same events through their perspective rather than through the eyes of the Europeans. Allen and Schweikart remain largely neutral on the topic of the Natives, they detail some of the atrocities against the Natives by the British and don’t insert any obvious trace of opinion in doing so.
When it comes to which narrative I agree with, I would choose the version of events A People’s History presents. The first-hand evidence Zinn presents is compelling whereas A Patriot’s History doesn’t give me as much to consider as I have previously held the view that Columbus does not deserve the hero status he has received over the years due to the atrocities he committed against the Native Americans. Saying that Schweikart and Allen present some valid points. They claim that estimating populations from 500 years ago is difficult and often incorrect at first, which is true. I can understand why Allen and Schweikart say that historians greatly exaggerate the declining Native American population and that the initial numbers are unreliable. Schweikart and Allen also bring up the fact that the number of Native Americans that died in battle is unknown as they didn’t keep written records at the time. That could also contribute to the sharp decline in the Native American population. To recap, I agree mostly with Zinn but I recognize Allen and Schweikart’s arguments.
When it comes to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, many would think that these documents have no political leanings and that they are universally revered. That isn’t true as Zinn and Schweikart present different ideas on it. Allen and Schweikart push forth the idea that the Declaration of Independence was how the Americans broke free from Britain’s clutches and that the Constitution was an upgrade from the already good and strong Articles of Confederation. Money and power don’t seem to be part of Schweikart and Allen’s equation when it comes to the Declaration of Independence but Zinn feels differently.
Zinn believes that the phrase “all men are created equal” wasn’t intentionally sexist as women were practically invisible in the world of politics. It wasn’t just women, Native Americans were excluded from the Declaration of Independence and they had little to no control over their own country (Zinn 67). Hamilton was sharply criticized for the Whiskey Tax he passed and how he handled the backlash from small farmers. In Zinn’s eyes, everything Hamilton did always seemed to benefit the rich (Zinn 93). Zinn holds the view that the Constitution was written with political intentions (Zinn 91). Money and power were a lot more prevalent in the Constitution than what people would like to believe and Zinn presents an opposing view which criticized the intentions of the Constitution, a bold move in itself.
However, Schweikart and Allen unabashedly cast Washington in a positive light as they describe him as a man who “inspired his soldiers with exceptional self-control, personal honour and high morals.” (Allen and Schweikart 75). They go into great detail when it comes to his career and while Washington may not be perfect, in Allen and Schweikart’s eyes, he’s a hero. All of the original writers of the Declaration of Independence are painted as heroes for standing up against the “redcoats” but Thomas Jefferson gets special credit for writing integral parts of it (Allen and Schweikart 90). Compared to Zinn, Schweikart and Allen are much kinder to Alexander Hamilton as they admit that Hamilton helped the Revolutionaries win the Battle of Yorktown (Allen and Schweikart 85). Rather than ignoring the Anti-Federalists, Allen and Schweikart do say that the Bill of Rights was their doing and that America owes them a debt of gratitude for that (Allen and Schweikart 121).
In Zinn’s eyes, the real heroes were the slaves and the Native Americans. He details how they were barred from joining the Revolution and how they were betrayed by the bigwigs like Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. Zinn outlines social problems of the time like wealth inequality and racism. He doesn’t go so far to criticize “very poor whites” as he believes that their fear of African and Native Americans was exploited for political gain (Zinn 91). Thomas Jefferson is painted as a villain as Zinn calls out his perceived hypocrisy as Jefferson wrote against slavery but owned hundreds of them until he died. Zinn details how women weren’t seen as important enough to have political rights and he casts “privileged males” as villains (Zinn 68). For Zinn, the true heroes are the people history tends to forget about and history’s heroes aren’t as squeaky clean as people would like to believe.
What Zinn, Allen and Schweikart do agree on is a fairly short list. They all have the same interpretation of the political views of the Founding Fathers. They agreed that Hamilton was an elitist and a pragmatist, that the road to ratifying the constitution was not an easy one and that the Constitution did help the poorer population. Those are hard-line facts that political opinions cannot twist.
Personally, I agree with Allen and Schweikart’s narrative when it comes to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They were rather progressive documents at the time of publication and they are the foundation of one of the most powerful and influential nations in the world. The story of America would be quite different if they didn’t declare independence and create a strong constitution. Regardless of the alleged intentions, it has done wonders not just for the United States, but all over the world. Since America is so strong, other countries look up to it and documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution provided a chance for America to become a global leader.
To recap, in this paper, we have explored the main arguments, depictions and political ideas of A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror by Michael Allen and Larry Schweikart and A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present by Howard Zinn. At first, the narratives presented by both of these books seem to be worlds apart. They are on different sides of the debate when it comes to Christopher Columbus, their narratives centre around different groups of people throughout the opening chapters and they highlight various people and events to complement their idea of America’s story. Even when it comes to the Declaration of Independence, they aren’t as persuasive but they have different views on a document that is meant to transcend political lines. Their ideas of the heroes and villains are different depending on their narrative but there are some aspects that they agree on and I have injected my own opinion on these topics. To sum it all up, A Patriot’s History details the story of the majority of America whereas A People’s History, as the title suggests, tells the story from the minority’s perspective.