A People's History of the United States

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A People’s History of the United States
“1492 to the Clinton presidency in 1996”
1. Columbus, The Indians, and Human
Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages
onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When
Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran
to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which
they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything
they owned... . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do
not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge
and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane... .
They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make
them do whatever we want.
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who
were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality,
their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance,
dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for
money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas,
Christopher Columbus.
Columbus wrote:
As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the
natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of
whatever there is in these parts.
The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold? He had
persuaded the king and queen of Spain to finance an expedition to the lands, the wealth,
he expected would be on the other side of the Atlantic-the Indies and Asia, gold and
spices. For, like other informed people of his time, he knew the world was round and he
could sail west in order to get to the Far East.
Spain was recently unified, one of the new modern nation-states, like France,
England, and Portugal. Its population, mostly poor peasants, worked for the nobility, who
were 2 percent of the population and owned 95 percent of the land. Spain had tied itself
to the Catholic Church, expelled all the Jews, driven out the Moors. Like other states of
the modern world, Spain sought gold, which was becoming the new mark of wealth,
more useful than land because it could buy anything.
There was gold in Asia, it was thought, and certainly silks and spices, for Marco Polo
and others had brought back marvelous things from their overland expeditions centuries
before. Now that the Turks had conquered Constantinople and the eastern Mediterranean,
and controlled the land routes to Asia, a sea route was needed. Portuguese sailors were
working their way around the southern tip of Africa. Spain decided to gamble on a long
sail across an unknown ocean.
In return for bringing back gold and spices, they promised Columbus 10 percent of
the profits, governorship over new-found lands, and the fame that would go with a new
tide: Admiral of the Ocean Sea. He was a merchant's clerk from the Italian city of Genoa,
part-time weaver (the son of a skilled weaver), and expert sailor. He set out with three
sailing ships, the largest of which was the Santa Maria, perhaps 100 feet long, and thirtynine
crew members.
Columbus would never have made it to Asia, which was thousands of miles farther
away than he had calculated, imagining a smaller world. He would have been doomed by
that great expanse of sea. But he was lucky. One-fourth of the way there he came upon an
unknown, uncharted land that lay between Europe and Asia-the Americas. It was early
October 1492, and thirty-three days since he and his crew had left the Canary Islands, off
the Atlantic coast of Africa. Now they saw branches and sticks floating in the water.
They saw flocks of birds.
These were signs of land. Then, 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.
So, approaching land, they were met by the Arawak Indians, who swam out to greet
them. The Arawaks lived in village communes, had a developed agriculture of corn,
yams, cassava. They could spin and weave, but they had no horses or work animals. They
had no iron, but they wore tiny gold ornaments in their ears.
This was to have enormous consequences: it led Columbus to take some of them
aboard ship as prisoners because he insisted that they guide him to the source of the gold.
He then sailed to what is now Cuba, then to Hispaniola (the island which today consists
of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). There, bits of visible gold in the rivers, and a gold
mask presented to Columbus by a local Indian chief, led to wild visions of gold fields.
On Hispaniola, out of timbers from the Santa Maria, which had run aground,
Columbus built a fort, the first European military base in the Western Hemisphere. He
called it Navidad (Christmas) and left thirty-nine crewmembers there, with instructions to
find and store the gold. He took more Indian prisoners and put them aboard his two
remaining ships. At one part of the island he got into a fight with Indians who refused to
trade as many bows and arrows as he and his men wanted. Two were run through with
swords and bled to death. Then the Nina and the Pinta set sail for the Azores and Spain.
When the weather turned cold, the Indian prisoners began to die.
Columbus's report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant. He insisted he had
reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola). His
descriptions were part fact, part fiction:
Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and
beautiful ... the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which
the majority contain gold. . . . There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other
The Indians, Columbus reported, "are so naive and so free with their possessions that
no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they
have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone...." He
concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he
would bring them from his next voyage "as much gold as they need ... and as many slaves
as they ask." He was full of religious talk: "Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory
to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities."
Because of Columbus's exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was
given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and
gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as
word spread of the Europeans' intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti,
they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the
Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and
children as slaves for sex and labor.
Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the
interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with
some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up
fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by
Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of
those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were
put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were
"naked as the day they were born," they showed "no more embarrassment than animals."
Columbus later wrote: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the
slaves that can be sold."
But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay
back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships
with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold
fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity
of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang
around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled
to death.
The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of
dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were
Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had
armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or
burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison.
Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder,
mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.
When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave
labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious
pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand
Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of
the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.
The chief source-and, on many matters the only source-of information about what
happened on the islands after Columbus came is Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young
priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba. For a time he owned a plantation on which
Indian slaves worked, but he gave that up and became a vehement critic of Spanish
cruelty. Las Casas transcribed Columbus's journal and, in his fifties, began a multivolume
History of the Indies. In it, he describes the Indians. They are agile, he says, and can
swim long distances, especially the women. They are not completely peaceful, because
they do battle from time to time with other tribes, but their casualties seem small, and
they fight when they are individually moved to do so because of some grievance, not on
the orders of captains or kings.
Women in Indian society were treated so well as to startle the Spaniards. Las Casas
describes sex relations:
Marriage laws are non-existent men and women alike choose their mates and leave them
as they please, without offense, jealousy or anger. They multiply in great abundance;
pregnant women work to the last minute and give birth almost painlessly; up the next
day, they bathe in the river and are as clean and healthy as before giving birth. If they tire
of their men, they give themselves abortions with herbs that force stillbirths, covering
their shameful parts with leaves or cotton cloth; although on the whole, Indian men and
women look upon total nakedness with as much casualness as we look upon a man's head
or at his hands.
The Indians, Las Casas says, have no religion, at least no temples. They live in
large communal bell-shaped buildings, housing up to 600 people at one time ... made of
very strong wood and roofed with palm leaves.... They prize bird feathers of various
colors, beads made of fishbones, and green and white stones with which they adorn their
ears and lips, but they put no value on gold and other precious things. They lack all
manner of commerce, neither buying nor selling, and rely exclusively on their natural
environment for maintenance. They are extremely generous with their possessions and by
the same token covet the possessions of then; friends and expect the same degree of
liberality. ...
In Book Two of his History of the Indies, Las Casas (who at first urged replacing
Indians by black slaves, thinking they were stronger and would survive, but later relented
when he saw the effects on blacks) tells about the treatment of the Indians by the
Spaniards. It is a unique account and deserves to be quoted at length:
Endless testimonies . .. prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives.... But our
work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they
tried to kill one of us now and then.... The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who
came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable
crimes against the Indians....
Las Casas tells how the Spaniards "grew more conceited every day" and after a while
refused to walk any distance. They "rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry" or
were carried on hammocks by Indians running in relays. "In this case they also had
Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose
Total control led to total cruelty. The Spaniards "thought nothing of knifing Indians
by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades."
Las Casas tells how "two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each
carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys."
The Indians' attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they ran off into the
hills they were found and killed. So, Las Casas reports, "they suffered and died in the
mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom
they could turn for help." He describes their work in the mines:
... mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they
dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on then: backs to wash it in the rivers, while
those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it
breaks them; and when water invades the mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the
mines by scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside....
After each six or eight months' work in the mines, which was the time required of
each crew to dig enough gold for melting, up to a third of the men died.
While the men were sent many miles away to the mines, the wives remained to work
the soil, forced into the excruciating job of digging and making thousands of hills for
cassava plants.
Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when
they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides ... they ceased to procreate.
As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished,
had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in
three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation.... hi this
way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk
. .. and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile ... was
depopulated. ... My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I
tremble as I write. ...
When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, "there were 60,000 people
living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million
people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will
believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it...."
Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the
Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas-even if his
figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less
than a million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?)-is
conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United
States, it all starts with heroic adventure-there is no bloodshed-and Columbus Day is a
Past the elementary and high schools, there are only occasional hints of something
else. Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian, was the most distinguished writer on
Columbus, the author of a multivolume biography, and was himself a sailor who retraced
Columbus's route across the Atlantic. In his popular book Christopher Columbus,
Mariner, written in 1954, he tells about the enslavement and the killing: "The cruel policy
initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide."
That is on one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance. In the book's
last paragraph, Morison sums up his view of Columbus:
He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that
made him great-his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as
the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect,
poverty and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding
and essential of all his qualities-his seamanship.
One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to
unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He
does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one
can use: genocide.
But he does something else-he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things
more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery
which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts,
however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with
a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it's not that important-it
should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in
the world.
It is not that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not of others. This is
as natural to him as to the mapmaker, who, in order to produce a usable drawing for
practical purposes, must first flatten and distort the shape of the earth, then choose out of
the bewildering mass of geographic information those things needed for the purpose of
this or that particular map.
My argument cannot be against selection, simplification, emphasis, which are
inevitable for both cartographers and historians. But the map-maker's distortion is a
technical necessity for a common purpose shared by all people who need maps. The
historian's distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of
contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means
to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or
Furthermore, this ideological interest is not openly expressed in the way a
mapmaker's technical interest is obvious ("This is a Mercator projection for long-range
navigation-for short-range, you'd better use a different projection"). No, it is presented as
if all readers of history had a common interest which historians serve to the best of their
ability. This is not intentional deception; the historian has been trained in a society in
which education and knowledge are put forward as technical problems of excellence and
not as tools for contending social classes, races, nations.
To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and
discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an
ideological choice. It serves- unwittingly-to justify what was done. My point is not that
we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late
for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of
atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and
Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear
proliferation, to save us all)-that 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, as radioactive wastes are
buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same
proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable
of classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the
apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from
politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly.
The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)-the quiet
acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain
approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments,
conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal
acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt,
Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Courtrepresent
the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as "the
United States," subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a
community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a "national interest"
represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress,
the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and
the mass media.
"History is the memory of states," wrote Henry Kissinger in his first book, A World
Restored, in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the
viewpoint of the leaders of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from
those statesmen's policies. From his standpoint, the "peace" that Europe had before the
French Revolution was "restored" by the diplomacy of a few national leaders. But for
factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women
and children everywhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence,
hunger, exploitation-a world not restored but disintegrated.
My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must
not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have
been, The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce
conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and
conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race
and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job
of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.
Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in
history, I prefer to try 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, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican
war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott's army, of the rise of industrialism as seen
by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by
the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the
Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the
Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the
postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited
extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can "see" history from the
standpoint of others.
My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears,
that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are
not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so
far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate
and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.
Still, understanding the complexities, 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. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that
victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I
don't want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I
once read: "The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don't listen to it, you will
never know what justice is."
I don't want to invent victories for people's movements. But to think that historywriting
must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make
historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to
anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new
possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes,
people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing,
or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of
compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.
That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The
reader may as well know that before going on.
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.
The Aztec civilization of Mexico came out of the heritage of Mayan, Zapotec, and
Toltec cultures. It built enormous constructions from stone tools and human labor,
developed a writing system and a priesthood. It also engaged in (let us not overlook this)
the ritual killing of thousands of people as sacrifices to the gods. The cruelty of the
Aztecs, however, did not erase a certain innocence, and when a Spanish armada appeared
at Vera Cruz, and a bearded white man came ashore, with strange beasts (horses), clad in
iron, it was thought that he was the legendary Aztec man-god who had died three hundred
years before, with the promise to return-the mysterious Quetzalcoatl. And so they
welcomed him, with munificent hospitality.
That was Hernando Cortes, come from Spain with an expedition financed by
merchants and landowners and blessed by the deputies of God, with one obsessive goal:
to find gold. In the mind of Montezuma, the king of the Aztecs, there must have been a
certain doubt about whether Cortes was indeed Quetzalcoatl, because he sent a hundred
runners to Cortes, bearing enormous treasures, gold and silver wrought into objects of
fantastic beauty, but at the same time begging him to go back. (The painter Durer a few
years later described what he saw just arrived in Spain from that expedition-a sun of gold,
a moon of silver, worth a fortune.)
Cortes then began his march of death from town to town, using deception, turning
Aztec against Aztec, killing with the kind of deliberateness that accompanies a strategyto
paralyze the will of the population by a sudden frightful deed. And so, in Cholulu, he
invited the headmen of the Cholula nation to the square. And when they came, with
thousands of unarmed retainers, Cortes's small army of Spaniards, posted around the
square with cannon, armed with crossbows, mounted on horses, massacred them, down to
the last man. Then they looted the city and moved on. When their cavalcade of murder
was over they were in Mexico City, Montezuma was dead, and the Aztec civilization,
shattered, was in the hands of the Spaniards.
All this is told in the Spaniards' own accounts.
In Peru, that other Spanish conquistador Pizarro, used the same tactics, and for the
same reasons- the frenzy in the early capitalist states of Europe for gold, for slaves, for
products of the soil, to pay the bondholders and stockholders of the expeditions, to
finance the monarchical bureaucracies rising in Western Europe, to spur the growth of the
new money economy rising out of feudalism, to participate in what Karl Marx would
later call "the primitive accumulation of capital." These were the violent beginnings of an
intricate system of technology, business, politics, and culture that would dominate the
world for the next five centuries.