If one wonders why there is so much division today, one need look no further than the two most popular textbooks in American history to discover why. The first, Thomas A. Bailey’s The American Pageant, 1956, interprets the country along traditional lines that emphasized a fairly benign approach to the “grand experiment.” The second, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, 1980, interprets the growth of the country along distinctly critical lines, offering the most negative explanation for practically the existence of the U.S. in the first place.
Together, they both represent the critical influence of education on public attitudes. The first book represents an older, “traditional” generation, the second that of the more recent “millennial,” youth generation. Philosophically, they offer distinct divides as well, something similar to Jefferson versus Marx. In political terms, Bailey is “Republican,” Zinn “Democrat,” with the first representing Lincoln and Reagan, the second domestic socialists, protesters in general, and, more recently, Bernie Sanders, “AOC,” and the “squad.”
No single President has ever reflected Zinn, but the great popularity of his book is shaping the current and possibly future generations. Whether or not the country exists as it is and was or becomes a completely different entity may well turn on the sharply radical distinctions between Tom Bailey and Howard Zinn and how they viewed the American story.
One People, Two Views
Just a brief review of how each interpreted the same events will demonstrate how generations have come to judge the country in such extreme lights. It may show equally why/how the future will unfold.
First, the nature of the people themselves. As expected, Bailey is enthusiastic and positive. Admitting that from the beginning, “social inequalities existed in all the colonies,” Bailey quickly noted how “democratic forces were working significant changes. The most remarkable feature of the social ladder was the rags-to-riches ease with which an ambitious person might rise from a lower rung to a higher one” (p. 68).
Exactly the opposite, Zinn begins his book by overtly drawing American history from the worst possible aspects of societal range, highlighting only the “bad” and “ugly” while deliberately ignoring any real or potential “good” within the entire enterprise: “I prefer to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish…” (p. 10).
As might be expected, the two stories go downhill (or uphill) from there, “as the twig is bent, so goes the tree.”
On the Founding Fathers, Bailey: “These were the dedicated souls who bore the burden of battle and the risks of defeat; these were the freedom-loving patriots who deserved the gratitude and approbation of generations yet unborn. Seldom have so few done so much for so many” (p. 103). Zinn: “They created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command’’ (p. 59).
On the Civil War, Bailey: “The Civil War was the supreme test of American democracy. …The preservation of democratic ideals … was subconsciously one of the major objectives of the North” (p. 457). Zinn: “The American government had set out to fight the slave states in 1861, not to end slavery, but retain the enormous national territory and market and resources” (p. 198).
On World War I, Bailey: “… the conflict, above all, was a vindication of American democracy. The German militarists had sneered at our ability to gird ourselves for battle while there was yet time. We astonished them – and to some extent ourselves – when we joined as one people in a mighty crusade for victory. Democracy, after all, did not seem so spineless” (p. 747). Zinn: “American capitalism needed international rivalry – and periodic war – to create an artificial community of interest between rich and poor, supplanting the genuine community of interest among the poor that showed itself in sporadic movements” (pp. 363-364).
On the Great Depression, Bailey: “Roosevelt, like Jefferson, provided reform without revolution. …Choosing the middle road, he has been called the greatest American conservative since Hamilton. He demonstrated anew the value of powerful presidential leadership. … He helped preserve democracy in America when democracies abroad were disappearing down the dictatorial drain” (p. 856). Zinn: “When the New Deal was over, capitalism remained intact. The rich still controlled the nation’s wealth, as well as its laws, courts, police, newspapers, churches, colleges. …the same system that had brought depression and crisis – the system of waste, of inequality, of concern for profit over human need – remained” (pp. 403-404).
The Past As Prologue
It may be superfluous to note that the above symbolic examples serve to demonstrate the clash between the two major opposing images of human society that still define the continuing crisis of our times. Howard Zinn is obviously a Marxist and Thomas Bailey a Jeffersonian; one a revolutionist in a Leninist mold, the other a revolutionist in a mold stemming from British thinkers Thomas Paine and John Locke.
As we view the ongoing struggles within contemporary society, it might be well to reflect that the actual origins of what may appear as recent events and personalities are, in reality, only “breaking news” in a life-and-death struggle between two opposite visions of humanity.
Both have been here for centuries. Both stem from historic and intellectual definitions. And both also stem from revolution, one from America (1776), the other from Russia (1917).
And we thought the Cold War was over!
P.S. A personal note
As a descendant of the “New York Irish” who rioted against the draft in 1863, I object to Howard Zinn’s portrayal of the Irish as victims in the greater drama of the Civil War. Yes, they protested the draft, but most of the police and soldiers that ended those riots were Irish as well. So were the men that re-elected Lincoln the following year, thus guaranteeing that America would remain one people. We Irish did not escape one tyranny to enter into another. To us, America meant freedom, and still does.