Reading A People’s History of the United States, ch. 4

After a very long hiatus (initially due to my dissertation, after which I never got back on track) I’m going to resume my chapter-by-chapter reviews of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”. My perspective on it might be somewhat different than when I originally started re-reading, but perhaps there’s still some value in it. This are my notes on Chapter 4, “Tyranny is Tyranny”. Previously: chapter 3. Next: chapter 5.

This chapter covers the buildup to the American Revolution. In particular, it highlights some of the lesser-known conflicts during this period, and their relationship to the Revolution itself, both in terms of their material impact and the ideological positioning of the independence movement. It also discusses the gap between that ideology and reality.

The thread running through the chapter is the distinction between class-based and nationalist grievances. Zinn explicitly identifies the idea of the nation as being constructed, in order to unite groups whose interests would otherwise conflict.1 Specifically, the division between rich and poor is demonstrated to be a far more pressing concern for the poor than the conflict with the British authorities; the challenge for the independence movement was to direct this concern against the British without damaging the position of the colonial elites. The most dramatic case appears to be that of North Carolina, where uprisings by small farmers against landowners were put down by military force, and (as a result) the region remained relatively neutral when the Revolution broke out a few years later.

Zinn also discusses the limits of republican feeling—for example, Paine’s idea of a single assembly (by contrast with the bicameral Westminster system) being rejected by Adams as excessively ‘democratical’ and thus inevitably leading to ‘confusion and every evil work’. The Declaration of Independence, too, was limited in its scope—the ‘all men’ who were ‘created equal’ meant, obviously, only all white males. Slaves were, of course, explicitly excluded; conversely, according to Zinn, women’s exclusion was not a conscious decision. Rather, it simply did not occur to the leaders of the independence movement that women ought to have rights of their own.2 And even equality between white men did not extend to the economic sphere, ignoring and entrenching the existing inequality of wealth. But, notes Zinn, it is futile to wish, two hundred years later, that the Declaration was different; rather, what is important is to “understand how the Declaration function to mobilize certain groups of Americans, ignoring others”, pointing out that the same process occurs in our time. The example that came to my mind in particular was Nazi Germany, which constructed an idea of the nation in opposition to external and internal enemies (Slavic, Roma, and Jewish people, Communists, etc.) and attempted to unite otherwise-conflicting groups—working-class, middle-class, aristocracy—against them. (There are, of course, countless other examples of this process of nation-building, including in the US, UK, and other European countries right now.)

One weakness of this chapter, as with previous chapters, is the focus on (what would become) the United States, to the exclusion of Canada. This anachronistic distinction means a lack of what might provide an important point of comparison — why did the Thirteen Colonies become independent and not the Canadian territories? I can make guesses, but no more than that.

  1. The suggestion seems to be that this was a conscious process by the elites, and I’m not necessarily convinced by that. The result, however, is the same.↩︎

  2. This brought to mind Domenico Losurdo’s concept of ‘the community of the free’, in Liberalism: A Counter-History; in short, he argues that, far from being aberrations, liberal rights have only ever been applied to particular groups (white people, men, citizens) to the exclusion of others (people of colour, women, non-citizens).↩︎