A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States

– Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, Seagull Edition, Volume 1 (ISBN: 9780393911909)

– Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (ISBN: 9780060838652)


A People’s History, chapter 1
Debate over the Justice of European Conquest

Directions:Read the background section. Then read both documents and answer the corresponding questions as well as the synthetic questions at the end.Then answer the summary question.

Background: In 1550 a historic debate took place at the Spanish court, in the city of Valladolid, over the justice of the conquest. Juan Gines Sepulveda, official historian of the royal court, took the position that Indians were savages and deserved to be enslaved. He was opposed by the Dominican priest Bartolome de las Casas, who believed the Indians to be fully capable of reason and that conversion to Christianity must be accomplished without force or coercion. Sepulveda’s position supported the interests of Spanish colonists, while the arguments of las Casas were taken up by the church and crown, who sought to control the power of the ecomenderos. No transcript of the debate survived, but the arguments of the two men can be reconstructed from their other writings.

Document 1: Gines Sepulveda, “The Indians are Natural Slaves”
The Spanish have a perfect right to rule these barbarians of the New World and the adjacent islands, who in prudence, skill, virtues, and humanity are as inferior to the Spanish as children to adults, or women to men, for there exists between the two as great a difference as between savage and cruel races and the most merciful, between the most intemperate and the moderate and temperate and, I might even say, between apes and men…
What temperance or mercy can you expect from men who are committed to all types of intemperance and base frivolity, and eat human flesh? And do not believe that before the arrival of the Christians they lived in that pacific kingdom of Saturn which the poets have invented; for, on the contrary, they waged continual and ferocious war upon one another with such fierceness that they did not consider a victory at all worthwhile unless they sated their monstrous hunger with the flesh of their enemies.
Although some of them show a certain ingenuity for various works of artisanship, this is no proof of human cleverness, for we can observe animals, birds, and spiders making certain structures which no human accomplishment can competently imitate. And as for the way of life of the inhabitants of New Spain and the province of Mexico…they have established their nation in such a way that no one possesses anything individually, neither a house nor a field, which he can leave to his heirs in his will, for everything belongs to their Masters whom, with improper nomenclature, they call kings, and by whose whims they live, more than by their own, ready to do the bidding and desire of these rulers and possessing no liberty. And the fulfillment of all this, not under the pressure of arms but in a voluntary and spontaneous way, is a definite sign of the service and base soul of these barbarians. They have distributed the land in such a way that they themselves cultivate the royal and public holdings, one part belonging to the king, another to public feasts and sacrifices, with only a third reserved for their own advantage, and all this is done in such a way that they live as employees of the king, paying, thanks to him, exceedingly high taxes…And if this type of servile and barbarous nation had not been to their liking and nature, it would have been easy for them, as it was not a hereditary monarchy, to take advantage of the death of a king in order to obtain a freer state and one more favorable to their interests; by not doing so, they have stated quite clearly that they have been born to slavery and not to civic and liberal life. Therefore, if you wish to reduce them, I do not say to our domination, but to a servitude a little less harsh, it will not be difficult for them to change their masters, and instead of the ones they had, who were barbarous and impious and inhuman, to accept the Christians, cultivators of human virtues and the true faith…
1. How does Sepulveda describe the relationship between Spaniards and Indians?
2. What did Sepulveda think of the Indians warfare practices?
3. What did the Indians lack of individual possessions and communal living “prove” to Sepulveda?


Document 2: Bartolome de las Casas, “ The Indians are our brothers”
Now if we shall have shown that among our Indians of the western and southern shores (granting that we call them barbarians and that they are barbarians) there are important kingdoms, large numbers of people who live settled lives in a society, great cities, kings, judges and laws, persons who engage in commerce, buying, selling, lending, and the other contracts of the law of nations, will it now stand proved that the Reverend Doctor Sepúlveda has spoken wrongly and viciously against peoples like these, either out of malice or ignorance of Aristotle’s teaching, and, therefore, has falsely and perhaps irreparably slandered them before the entire world? From the fact that the Indians are barbarians it does not necessarily follow that they are incapable of government and have to be ruled by others, except to be taught about the Catholic faith and to be admitted to the holy sacraments. They are not ignorant, inhuman, or bestial. Rather, long before they had heard the word Spaniard they had properly organized states, wisely ordered by excellent laws, religion, and custom. They cultivated friendship and, bound together in common fellowship, lived in populous cities in which they wisely administered the affairs of both peace and war justly and equitably, truly governed by laws that at very many points surpass ours, and could have won the admiration of the sages of Athens…
I call on the Spaniards who plunder that unhappy people…For God’s sake and man’s faith in him, is this the way to impose the yoke of Christ on Christian men? Is this the way to remove wild barbarism from the minds of barbarians? Is it not, rather, to act like thieves, cut-throats, and cruel plunderers and to drive the gentlest of people headlong into despair? The Indian race is not that barbaric, nor are they dull witted or stupid, but they are easy to teach and very talented in learning all the liberal arts, and very ready to accept, honor, and observe the Christian religion and correct their sins (as experience has taught) once priests have introduced them to the sacred mysteries and taught them the word of God…
The Indians are our brothers, and Christ has given his life for them. Why, then, do we persecute them with such inhuman savagery when they do not deserve such treatment? The past, because it cannot be undone, must be attributed to our weakness, provided that what has been taken unjustly is restored.

1. What elements of Indian civilization does las Casas identify?
2. What proof of Indians’ ability to reason does las Casas present?
3. What Christian argument does las Casas use to make his point?


Synthetic Questions for both documents:
1. What does the debate between Sepulveda and las Casas reveal about the kind of “foundation” being built during the Origins of the Nation? Be sure to give a full explanation
2. Given the debate in the documents, was race a point of unity or conflict? What are the implications for the United States that will eventually be built on this foundation? Be sure to give a full explanation.

Summary Question – At least two paragraphs in length.

1. What kind of national foundation was being built during the era of European exploration? How do you think it will affect the political, economic, and social development of the nation?

A People’s History, chapter 1 (short brief answers)

1. How did Columbus describe his encounter with the Arawak Indians in his log?


2. What was Columbus looking for?


3. For Columbus, what role did God play in his voyage to the Americas?

4. Who was Las Casas? How does he describe the Indians’ economic system?

5. According to Zinn, what kind of “beginning” did Columbus’ arrival in the Americas represent?

6. How does Zinn describe the “ideological interest” of historians? What does he mean? view?

7. From whose viewpoint, does Zinn tell the story of American history?
8. According to Zinn, what can “creative history” accomplish?
9. How did John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, justify taking the Indians’ land?
10. By 1676 what happened to the Indian population in North America
11. What did Roger Williams say about “private property?
12. What kind of cultures had the various Indian tribes created all over the Americas? How did their societies differ from the European colonists?



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